The War

Hollywood has had a skewed view of war. With some notable exceptions, war movies aren’t always about unrelenting horror, violence and terror unless it’s being used as a midpoint shock to wake up an audience. War movies aren’t always about the extreme sacrifices in order to win a piece of land barely big enough to build a house on. War movies aren’t about the losses seen off the battlefield that can be felt long after the battles are over. War movies aren’t about men chosen to fight for their country who can be literally crippled by pain, insanity and fear.

It’s easy to want to be numb to the idea of war. Hell, it’s practically human. Suffering and pain of such an unfathomable magnitude is too much for one brain to bare, so it’s natural to gravitate towards something that makes it seem more heroic and less horrific.

That’s a dangerous thought when you’re in the midst of a real war. Luckily, director Ken Burns and Lynn Novic’s epic World War II documentary “The War” is the perfect antidote to the war epic Novocain.

Burns, known for making very long but important historic documentaries on everything from “The Civil War” to “Baseball,” turns his detailed eye towards the Second World War. It’s one of his most ambitious subjects to date and he not only succeeds in telling the gripping, harrowing stories of the men on the battlefield and the strategy that won the big one, but he shines in telling the smaller stories of the lives that were lost, the men who survived and the sacrifices that were made around the world in order to stamp out the very face of evil.

He opens his seven part, 15 hour film by basically admitting that it would be impossible to cover the entire scope of such an important, all encompassing point in our world history. So he instead leans on his strengths and focuses on four soldiers from four different parts of the country, telling the stories of the war through their eyes and ears and sprinkling their descriptions with film footage, photographs and stories from the families back home.

Like any Burns film, his attention to detail is meticulous and sharp. He doesn’t just spit out dates and places with extreme accuracy. He pours out details and descriptions that are downright scary. It’s probably about the closest we’ll ever come to time travel. There’s so much to take in that you can’t watch it in one sitting and you’ll even find yourself rewinding lines or parts because you know you’ve missed something you didn’t want to. Did you know the first casualty of the Battle of Guadalcanal was a man who cut his hand with a machete while trying to open a coconut?

It’s also surprisingly capable of producing a whole range of emotions. It’s scary, shocking, heart warming and even (holy God in heaven, don’t let anyone take this the wrong way) funny. They are equally as powerful as the sad moments, of which they are plenty.

The music plays a big part in this Burns film. Wynton Marsalis composed and arranged the music and it also features a performance from Norah Jones that it set so perfectly into the film that it can a man with severed tear ducts feel like he’s about to bust loose. There are also narrations from the likes of A-list celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Lucas. They do a great job of setting the mood of their respective scenes, but their famous voices can make it a little distracting because it slightly damages the immersion the rest of the film makes you feel because you keep thinking, “Is that Kevin Conway or Adam Arkin?”

Such a minor detail isn’t what’s most important. Out of everything “The War” throws at you, the images of the effects of war will stick the most. You will see unrelenting horror staring you dead in the face. You will see images of death and suffering that hold nothing back and show you what war really looks like. It literally punches you in the fucking face.

The most important part of Burns’ film is it delivers an important message at a time when the U.S. needs it most. Just before the documentary’s premiere, Burns found himself in a controversy over whether or not he had given Latinos their due representation in the film. His focus of all races and their effects on the war is equal, but what’s most important, like all films, books and music that are lost on controversies that surround them, is the message. The only way to defeat true evil is for the world to stand up to it together.

Grade: A

Ken Burns: The WarRelease Date: October 2, 2007
Rated: Not Rated
Number of Discs: 6
Running Time: 900 minutes
Directors: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Studio: PBS

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