Ken Burns. The name is synonymous with documentaries. He has taken some of the world's most general subjects, like Prohibition or baseball, and created lengthy documentaries which delve into the humanistic soul surrounding its historical context. He doesn't just recite history book information. He dives into the personal stories of people affected by the history and discusses what it means for humanity as a whole. In 'The War' Burns takes on one of his most ambitious subjects to date. World War II.
The history and information about the second World War could fill an endless number of textbooks, encyclopedias, and Wiki pages. The war has been depicted in lengthy television mini-series, dramatized cinematic war epics and countless war documentaries. So, what makes 'The War' so different? What makes it stand out against the pack of innumerable stories about World War II? It's simply Ken Burns' ability to extract the deeply personal from the overtly global. World War II was a global tragedy which caused worldwide anguish and despair. Yet, Burns is able to tap into a variety of personal stories that bring the war closer to home. This isn't just a tale about the war, but a chronicle of the wide range of human emotions that filled the world at that time.
In order to tap into the human spirit and tragedy underlying the war as a whole, Burns focuses in on four seemingly ordinary American towns – Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota – and, through the first-hand experiences of soldiers and civilians, he pieces together a tapestry of emotions that run the gamut of anger and resentment to unity and togetherness. It's these first-hand accounts that really lend the believability and credibility to what Burns is trying to accomplish here.
This 15-hour documentary is split up into seven separate films that took over six years to compile. It's an immense undertaking. Through the 15 hours you really come to understand just a few of the lives that were affected by the war, and what kind of toll it took on people's psyche the world over. It's audacious in its scope and breadth. Obviously it doesn't cover every detail, but it sure tries.
The seven parts included are:
"A Necessary War" (2 hr. 22 min.) – Here we get an overview of the war and we're introduced to the four towns that we'll be following throughout the documentary's entirety. The time period covered is an entire year from December 1941 to December 1942. In that time we experience the horror of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the agony of soldiers as they fight for their lives on godforsaken Pacific islands, and the brutality of close-combat war. Burns doesn't shy away from graphic footage and pictures from the war. This isn't a sanitized propaganda film. He shows real pictures of mutilated corpses, dead civilians – men, women and children, beheaded soldiers. Nothing is off limits here because the real goal is to get as close as possible to what it was like to actually be involved in the war.
"When Things Get Tough" (1 hr. 54 min.) – The second part picks up in January of 1943 and chronicles the war efforts of America and its allies through December of 1943. We get our first taste of the real-life General George S. Patton as he leads American forces to a few crucial victories, both physical and emotional, in Northern Africa. America's economy is fully committed to the war effort. We hear about the ongoing struggles of the Japanese-Americans who were interned in concentration camps during "A Necessary War." With all this tragedy and ongoing death, the triumphant story here is the surge in the U.S. economy and how the war poised America to become the most powerful country in the world.
"A Deadly Calling" (1 hr. 50 min.) – The world is neck-deep in the war by now. "A Deadly Calling" covers the time between November 1943 to June 1944. The War Department has since been hiding the real cost of the war from the American public. People at home see propaganda films in their local theaters urging them to buy War Bonds, but they fail to realize just how deadly a toll that the war is taking. Finally, LIFE Magazine publishes brutally explicit photos of people and soldiers affected by the war. The interviewees recount the feelings of the American public once they grasped just how deadly and brutal the war was. Sacrifices of the American public are showcased here as people participate in scrap drives, trying their hardest to donate anything they can to the war effort. Even while the war features more death than they could have imagined, Americans pull together in a time of need.
"Pride of Our Nation" (2 hr. 16 min.) – Covering a short time period of June 1944 to August 1944, "Pride of Our Nation" recounts one of the most historic days in the history of modern warfare, D-Day. On June 6, 1944 Allied forces go on the offensive and invade France on the shores of Normandy. It's an exciting time as the long-awaited offensive movement begins, but the sobering statistics of D-Day fatalities soon pour in. On the other side of the world American forces fight in a lesser known, but just as deadly battle of Saipan. Death is everywhere, but there's a small taste of looming (but still far off) victory in the air.
"FUBAR" (2 hr. 4 min.) – If "Pride of Our Nation" featured a step forward in the war effort, "FUBAR" (a military acronym for "fucked up beyond all recognition") represents two steps back. Here we learn of Allied plans that go awry in Holland and in the Pacific as Marines fight an unnecessary battle in Peleliu. The fatalities are costly and they hurt even more when we realize they could've been prevented. However, even plans with the best of intentions of the worst possible outcomes.
"The Ghost Front" (1 hr. 56 min.) – Here we cover the time period of December 1944 to March of 1945. American armies push through Europe and the Pacific, but they meet strong resistance from Hitler's armies as well as the Japanese. Another famous time in American war history is covered here as we hear the tale of the costly, but effect battle at Iwo Jima. After years of war, the toll on the psychology of some of the soldiers is discussed here. Victory still seems far off, but progress is being made. Slow but sure.
"A World Without War" (2 hr. 5 min.) – March 1945 to December 1945 is covered in "A World Without War." Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sudden death surprises the entire country. Even though the war is winding down, casualties mount. The deadliest days come when now president, Harry S. Truman, orders atomic bombs be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death toll is incalculable. Germany finally surrenders, as does Japan. American soldiers begin to return home, but their outlook on life has been forever altered by the brutality of war.
Through this seven-part series you'll gain a closer understanding of the devastating effects of war on countries as a whole and the individuals that inhabit them. Ken Burns is able to take a war that is usually discussed in statistics and provide a humanistic outlook. There is far too much content to cover in this one review. It's an epic documentary made with care attention to detail. Like so many of Burns' other documentaries, 'The War' is simply one that you must make time for. There's nothing like it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The War comes in a six-disc set with each disc being a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It comes packaged in a slightly oversized keepcase with two swivel arms that house discs back-to-back. The other two discs are housed in their own hubs inside the front and back covers. Inside the front cover of the cover art is and episode list rundown of the different episodes and their summaries. The back of the case indicates a Region A release.
It's a bit hard to quantify the visual attributes of 'The War.' Like 'Prohibition,' 'The War' uses a very large amount of archival footage and photographs which have widely varying degrees of quality. Some archival footage is plagued with scratches, specks, and dirty, while other footage looks almost too pristine. So clear in fact, I found myself wondering if this footage was reshot or actually taken from the time period.
The 1080p resolution breathes new life into black and white photographs taken during that time. Some of the photos have an extremely lifelike feel and look to them. Blacks are deep and inky. The interview footage, which was filmed recently, does have a distinctly high-def look to it. Facial detail is top-notch whenever the series switches to interview mode. Although, some of the establishing shots, like recently filmed footage of a country house or a sunset, feature shimmering speckles that detract, somewhat, from the viewing experience.
Overall, the visuals are of varying degrees of quality which is to be expected from a documentary which utilizes recently filmed high-def interviews with archival footage from the 40s. Given the inherent shortcomings of the video footage of the time, 'The War' still comes out looking as good as possible, with only a few shimmering glitches.
Like 'Prohibition,' 'The War' has a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mix to go with it. The lack of lossless audio doesn't matter much in the larger scheme of things, since most of the series is reliant on front-and-center narration. The narration is always clean and clear, easily decipherable. Where the series lacks oomph is in the surrounding channels.
Sound effects of explosions and gunfire are piped in, but the rear sounds seem rather muted and a tad bit forced. Even with the numerous explosion effects LFE seems thin. The show's music is fairly balanced throughout the soundfield, but again, it doesn't come across as anything noteworthy.
Yes, the sound mix is inhibited by the very nature of it being a documentary, but one has to wonder what it would've sounded like had we been provided a lossless mix.
'The War' is an extensive and exhaustive look at World War II, not only on a global level, but an individual one. Burns has constructed a very realistic and humanistic tapestry of grief, despair, anger, happiness, sadness, loneliness, and unity. At times, 'The War' is hard to watch, because it doesn't shy away from the stark realities of a world torn by the costly effects of battle. The brutality of the war is shown in excruciating detail, but the way the whole narrative is constructed lends itself to one of the most engrossing documentaries ever made. Recommended.