The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)

Thanks to the miracle of the video recorder, Amy and I have been wading into The War, the seven-part, 14-and-a-half hour documentary on World War II from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has been airing on PBS since Sunday night.

It is excellent.

I am a documentary lover to begin with, and I have been a fan of Ken Burns’ work since his Brooklyn Bridge in 1981. His films are engrossing because he puts stories and people first, and he has a breathtaking talent for discovering the seemingly small coincidences and minor intersections which end up defining big designs in the fabric of history.

It takes years and years of work to dig these things up and piece them together. In an interview with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown, Burns said that work on The War began before 9/11, and that more than 600 people were talked to for the project. A PBS preview of the series showed the painstaking process of gathering photos and documents and film clips that have been stowed in drawers and closets around the country for 50 or 60 years.

Where other filmmakers resort to reenactments, Burns sticks almost entirely to these real artifacts. It’s all treasure for someone like me, who enjoys everything about the World War II era visually — the graphic design, the cars, the radios, even the Venetian blinds. When you’re watching color film of kids playing on a 1940s farm in Minnesota, there’s a solid authenticity that is never achieved in period recreations.

Also, for this film, the producers decided to leave experts and historians out, and rely on eyewitness accounts alone. When Sen. Daniel Inouye appears on the screen, it is because he was a 17-year-old Red Cross volunteer in Honolulu who had to deal with victims’ horrific injuries on the morning that Pearl Harbor was attacked:

“One haunts me every so often. It was a woman clutching a child. Her head was severed, but here she was with her arms around her baby. And so this is what I had to pick up. At seventeen.”

Although the series began Sunday night, thanks to multiple airings on many PBS stations, you still have a chance to watch it from the beginning. Chicago’s WTTW has scheduled a catch-up block of episodes this Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m.

Milwaukee Public Television schedules are a little more difficult to navigate, but Yahoo! TV lists a rerun of Episode One Wednesday, October 3 at 8 p.m.

The War is coming out on DVD on October 2, and you can, of course, order it from Amazon.com. A companion book co-authored by frequent Burns collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward is also available.

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