Review Of Ken Burns’ The War

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/22/07


  In regards to art, greatness is not merely a difference of scale, but a difference of kind, in that the elements that constitute greatness force an almost alchemical change in the nature of the beast. The brushstroke, wordly coinage, motion of the camera, or whatever it is that constitutes the given art, becomes more than the brushstroke, wordly coinage, or motion of the camera. There seems to be an almost ineffable rise in the ability to invoke reaction from the art’s percipients, and while certainly not supernatural, the great art and the great artist is a cut above, even if the mechanism of the ascendancy is not immediately evident, even to the most astute critic.

  This ideal was brought home to me while watching filmmaker Ken Burns’ most recent PBS documentary, The War, co-directed by Lynn Novick, for Burns, despite his ability to often stumble into a great moment, seems not to fundamentally understand the mechanics nor elements that constitute greatness. This 15 plus hour film follows in the wake of three other monumental documentaries he has crafted in the last decade and a half: the magnificent The Civil War- whose only dramatic flaw was the melodramatic schmaltz historian Shelby Foote displayed for the Confederacy, the too long Baseball, and the somnolent Jazz. In between he has crafted some interesting shorter documentaries on subjects as diverse as Mark Twain and Jack Johnson, but his bread and butter has been the marquee ‘big doc.’

  Burns has been plagued by years of controversies, both artistically and historically. His best film, The Civil War, which pioneered the Burnsian template of talking heads, melodramatic readings of personal letters, and slow scans of still photographs, accompanied by sometimes highly poetic words (and often purple prose), and swelling crescendos of music, was a triumph of art in a journalistic form. Yet, even that artistically great film was dogged by numerous historical flaws- documented in Robert Brent Toplin’s book Ken Burn’s The Civil War: Historians Respond. Baseball was far too long, and too obsessed with the cult of personality, rather than the thing that made the game America’s pastime: its history, season by season, and its pennant races. Jazz was a snooze that hagiographized often obscure musicians, and the whole project was a bit too weighted down with Political Correctness.

  Now, with the release of his fourth epic, more cracks in the Burnsian aura have shown through. Yes, it is a significant uptick from the downward trajectory of the last two epics, but The War still falls short of The Civil War, and by a longshot. This is because Burns does not seem to understand that content must impact form. Given that the talking heads of this film are the percipients of that event, and not historians, one would think that he might have edited out some of the more banal segments, where the oldsters tend to babble on about minutia- important in their minds, but utterly irrelevant to the neutral observer. Also, by using actor and celebrity World War Two enthusiast Tom Hanks to read the written observations of a small town journalist, Burns commits another great error of judgment- namely that most of what the editor, and the other quoted letters and commentaries say, are simply not as well wrought nor as emotionally engaging as those culled from the Civil War archives. Moral: not all small town newspaper types are budding Ambrose Bierces.

  Then there is the fundamental difference between the still photographs that could be made to suggest or embody a moment, as in The Civil War, and the predominance of home and government approved films that captured life at home and abroad during those years. Whereas the still photographs benefited from commentary and music that guided the viewer into emotional terrain, this can all be accomplished by the motion of the motion pictures. As example, in one scene, we see some dead and live American and Japanese soldiers sliding down a muddy embankment on a Pacific isle they are warring on. The voiceover then tells of the disgust soldiers could feel, with the weather, the rain, the maggots, the mud, etc., yet, even a not so astute observer can sense this from the scene and the expressions on the living soldiers’ faces. Thus, the voiceover is not merely recapitulative, but outright redundant, for the things it states are far better expressed by the moving image, especially since so much of his footage has never been seen before, and was given to Burns alone, for this project. That he would squander such an opportunity seems almost artistically criminal. Even worse, that Burns has welded himself to such formal extremes, even if successful in the earlier, greater war film, shows that he really does not comprehend the mechanisms for effective storytelling.

  That said, he does do a few very good things in this film, like shying away from the meta-narrative that hagiographizes the Great Men Of History: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, have been examined to death, so his emphasis on the people of four small American towns is a good choice, although including a big city or two- since America was urbanizing at the time, would have been welcome, as well as deflated the worst, almost Beaver Cleaverian, tendencies that Burns tends to mythologize. While there were powerful moments, as stated, far too high a percentage of the recollections are banal, and should have been outtakes. Of the 20 or so recurring personal tales, only three stood out- that of former U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, Sascha Weinzheimer and the internees in Manila, and the Minnesota flyboy, Quentin Aanenson. Yet, even Aanenson unwittingly undermined the Burnsian technique by stating what was obvious, in the series seventh and final episode, that he simply had not the power to contextualize his experience to others. What’s worse is that he was much better than the others. This is not an argument for Burns to have fallen back on the most trite of his techniques- the expert talking head. No, instead, Burns should have seized the opportunity to reinvent himself and his film technique, to push the envelope and let the material dictate the form of the piece. Or, if not, he could have at least found more eloquent subjects. Last year, I had a job where I spent hundreds of hours interviewing war veterans, from the 1920s on, and even have read some of their own books. Many would have been far more interesting subjects, both in their experiences and in their ability to convey those experiences to others, rather than often merely staring blankly into the camera. That Burns allows so many of these moments to drag interminably on reveals he does not understand what is truly effective dramatically, and what is merely dull and ill edited; although some of the blame has to be shouldered by Burns’ longtime screenwriter, Geoffrey C. Ward.

  This failure, however, was not the worst. While Burns came under some fire for his failures to either include or exclude certain musicians and musical pieces for his Jazz series, the scoring of this film, by Wynton Marsalis, is easily the worst, mostly for the inaptness of the image against the music. Not much was made of contemporary music, even though the Swing Era was at its height and even the American military was swept up in it. Instead, there are some slight references to popular songs, and at a few times in the series, and most dismally, to end the final episode, there is a horrendous contemporary song that is used. It is a slow piano ballad called American Anthem, whose lyrics are the worst sort of PC garbage- and wildly at odds with the tenor of the times portrayed, whose melody is somnolent, and whose voicing by Norah Jones is nothing short of atrocious- just a rung or two above the sorts of performances that induce guffaws on American Idol. Perhaps the only repeated scoring that works is another piano piece that sounds like a dirge-like descent into the abyss.

  Almost as bad as the scoring were three particular episodes, the first, fifth and sixth, that had tacked on endings- two on Hispanic soldiers, and the worst one on an American Indian soldier, all three with teeth gritting appellations about ‘other stories.’ The two Hispanic epi-lets were wholly forgettable, as their subjects ‘stories’ were merely recapitulations of what was contained in the primary episode, and the Indian one was embarrassingly PC and racist. It followed a not too bright Crow Indian who unwittingly fulfilled the clauses needed for him to become a chief. Not only was the interviewee clearly not ‘all there,’ but his Private Snafu routine with a feather act was an example of liberal racism at its worst. Yes, let’s feed the stereotype of the American Indian as a buffoon who becomes a medicine man, or chief, etc. Geez! That Burns added these, after bowing to strong arm tactics by a Latino group, does not speak well to his actual artistic vision. He should have told them to hang, that he could not add epi-lets for every hyphenated American group that felt marginalized, yet instead, by his own admission, marred his art, because he and Novick responded ‘with our hearts.’ This inability to tell the whole tale of America during World War Two, was, after all, the very rationale for his selecting the four small towns he did: Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California. Interestingly, Burns did not bow to pressure to censor the salty language out of the film, for when the narrator, Keith David, explains the meanings of the acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR, the word ‘fuck’ is uncensored, although some PBS stations did censor it.

  Instead, Burns should have focused alot more on the individual acts of the war- such as the gripping tales of an American soldier who tries to pluck gold fillings out of a paralyzed, but still living, Japanese soldier, is upbraided, has a buddy shoot the Jap, then continues his looting. Or, the gripping account of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which delivered Big Boy to its destination, then was sunk by a Japanese submarine. Its survivors spent days afloat, battling with sharks to survive. The one positive thing that the film does is it does not fetishistically linger over the Holocaust nor the atomic bomb.

  Granted, Burns does not often fall into The Greatest Generation claptrap that was so nauseating a decade ago- after all, yes, that generation defeated the Nazis and Japanese empires, but did nothing to end segregation and interned 120,000 Japanese-American citizens. By contrast, the Baby Boomers presided over the downfall of the Soviet Empire, sent man to the moon, ended the folly of Vietnam, supported Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation, founded the modern Conservation movement, and survived the political hari-kiri of Watergate and Iran-Contra. By my scorecard, the Baby Boomers win by a substantial margin.

  Yet, given all the potential that Burns demonstrated with his magisterial, if flawed, The Civil War, those many years ago, The War comes off as a passable, though ultimately forgettable, document- a solid 70 out of 100; but far short of the BBC’s mid-1970s landmark (albeit Anglophilic) The World At War, still the touchstone documentary effort regarding World War Two. The reasons for these I have documented. So, I must return to my earlier posit, that this solid effort is not only different in scale from The Civil War, but different in kind. One may be able to pinpoint a scene here, or a dozen there, see the flaw stemming from Burns’ own parting of ways with his brother Ric Burns, who was instrumental in many of Ken Burns’ earlier, better works, or some other reason I have not spotted, or have forgotten in the morass of this film’s heft- even though it seems far less weighty than the shorter great film. Yet, whatever that reason is, or those reasons are, to most they will remain as ineffable as the insights so many of Burns’ subjects could not voice. And, after all, is not the voice the key to all good stories?



[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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