It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Ken Burns one of the major chroniclers of American history of the past 30 years. His incredibly detailed and uncompromising documentary series for PBS have dissected many key aspects of the American psyche and culture, from the Civil War to baseball to jazz music. Released in 2007 to enormous acclaim, his gargantuan 14-hour series ‘The War’ may be his most ambitious undertaking, an attempt to chronicle the U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Co-directed with Lynn Novick, it is now regarded as a landmark in documentary television, and one of the definitive accounts of the war itself.
Rather than tackling the full scope of the conflict, ‘The War’ circumnavigates the usual narrative of generals, politicians and dictators to focus on four American towns, using first-hand contemporary interviews, a mountain of archival material and readings of historical documents by actors such as Tom Hanks and Josh Lucas to tell a very human chronicle of the experience of the war in Europe, the Pacific and for those back home, held together by the beautiful narration by Keith David. In the special features for the series, Burns tells us that the reason for the series was that around 1,000 U.S. servicemen from the war die every day, and ‘The War’ was conceived as an attempt to preserve a cultural history of the period before it disappeared. By focusing just on these four towns, Burns and Novick gain clear narrative arcs to follow and a microcosm with which to represent the vast racial and cultural scope of the American men, women and children involved. Its specificity is intricate, but the emotional impact of these very human stories is immense, each episode a series of often overwhelming vignettes that cover more ground than almost any documentary of its kind.
‘The War’ is also shockingly unsentimental and often difficult to watch, refusing to compromise on the integrity of its convictions. You wonder how much of the historical material has been seen publicly before, much of it very graphic and upsetting to look at. Burns and Novick also balance their approach by remaining objective about not just Germany and Japan, but the actions of the U.S. as well, unafraid to point out crimes and heroism committed by both sides. As well as the enormous conflicts overseas, the series gives ample moments to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the States and the racism and bigotry faced by African American and Asian American soldiers. No stone seems to be left unturned, no perspective unexplored, no truth left unspoken regardless of how confronting or uncomfortable it may make its viewers. The intention of ‘The War’ is to represent this period of history as accurately and authentically as possible, and at pretty much every turn, it does this unflinchingly.
The magic of the series though is in its contemporary interviews, a remarkable and diverse collection of faces and voices that not only capture the textures of the war, but the textures that make up America itself. They are often funny, shockingly blunt, incredibly sincere and painfully honest, and rather than the archival material being supported by the interviews, it’s the interviews themselves that take precedence. The openness of these men and women is remarkable, just as much as the stories they tell, and even though they come from such specific locations, they can speak for those who from across the country, those who cannot find the words and those who are no longer there. These interviews are easily this series’ greatest achievement.
Its specificity is intricate, but the emotional impact of these very human stories is immense, each episode a series of often overwhelming vignettes that cover more ground than almost any documentary of its kind.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking, ‘The War’ might be one of the most impressive ever made for television, at least on par with ‘The Civil War’. Despite its enormous length, it holds you from beginning to end, an extraordinary piece of storytelling that vividly and emotionally captures this important period of American history. ‘The War’ is a masterpiece, one of Ken Burns’ finest achievements and one of the most important American documentary television series ever made. Via Vision should be commended for bringing this extended version of the series to Blu-ray in Australia, especially in this exemplary release. Here’s hoping a Blu-ray release of ‘The Civil War’ is just around the corner.
PICTURE AND SOUND
For this release, Via Vision have carried over the same material from the 2012 US Blu-ray release. Because of the nature of the subject and the material used in the series, the 1080p 1.78:1 transfer of ‘The War’ fluctuates in quality, but is consistently of a high standard. The archival material holds up surprisingly well, much of it beautifully restored, and it mixes in well with the recently filmed interviews. The transfer is sharp throughout, and the seven episodes are spread across six discs, giving each one ample on-disc space. The video is accompanied by a consistently strong Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which packs a lot of punch and mostly balances the thunderous sound design of the battles with the narration and dialogue. There are a few moments where the levels are thrown out a bit, but mostly it’s a very strong track. It also comes with an accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 track that’s not as bombastic but equally well-balanced.
This edition also carries over all the special features from the U.S. Blu-ray release, beginning with commentaries from Burns and Novick discussing the first and fourth episodes. The bulk of the video features are on Disc 6, the chief of which is ‘Making The War’ (36:24). It appears to have been cobbled together from a number of smaller featurettes, so the quality of the material is spotty and inconsistent, but it offers a great chance to hear from the directors about the intentions for the series and its development. There’s also a wealth of deleted scenes (44:18), much of which are in rough form (fascinating in itself for seeing the series at different stages of post-production) and additional interviews (55:26). This is a very strong package, especially considering the gargantuan length of the series already.