The War

Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Time: 15 hours. Color/B&W

A few dozen eyewitnesses to history, plucked from four American towns, wend their sometimes intersecting ways through history’s largest epic. Like leitmotifs in a Wagnerian opera, their voices recur throughout The War as their stories guide us through its dense, tangled sprawl, amplified by mesmerizing pictures. There are phenomenal stills, enlivened by Burns’s trademark pans and closeups, and reams of riveting film footage—much in vivid color, some excruciating, most rarely if ever seen. The cumulative effect, thanks to smart editing, is staggering.

What ultimately emerges is a generally well-woven narrative representing a mind-numbingly vast subject. The War regularly bristles with statistics, set piece overviews, and thumbnail bios of the great, but it sees and feels through its Every American testifiers, who usually prove articulate and even eloquent, knowledgeable, and disturbingly thoughtful.

Across the lens sweep war bond and aluminum drives child-care facilities for Rosie-the-Riveters, lipstick factories churning out shell casings, Japanese internment camps, and Nisei soldiers. Cities like Mobile, Sacramento, and Waterbury explode with incoming defense worker wannabes of both genders and a few races—and reveal what some not-white-male folks faced at home and at the front. Cut to backstories on leaders, plans and operations, and general staff intrigues. Slam! The camera is staring out a landing craft’s dropped ramp as GIs dance and drop into the water; or peering from a foxhole as troops burst, crumple, or  get torched while machine guns spit and shells tear up clumps of earth and bodies; or weaving through flak and tracking flyboys as they go down or limp home. Then the voiceover quotes Ernie Pyle: “They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft.”

 Historians and buffs will quibble and quarrel about The War’s emphases and errata, with and without good reason. But for Burns’s broader audience, this is you-are-there history to the max, and it works.


Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here