Ken Burns revolutionized the television documentary. First it was “The Civil War,” then “Baseball” and “Jazz.” Each of these topics had been adequately covered in the past, but never to the extent of what has come to be known as the “Burnsian style.” For each project, he and his dedicated staff painstakingly assembled hundreds of still photos, which they made come alive through careful camera movement. He gathered letters and other documents and engaged dozens of familiar performers to act as “agents,” reading from these materials to dramatically present the smaller stories that pieced together the larger fabric of his chosen topic.
Burns and his writing partner, Geoffrey C. Ward, have combined to once again take a familiar theme --- in this case THE WAR: An Intimate History, 1941-1945 --- and transform it into an emotional reading, as well as a viewing, experience.
In interviews about their project, the authors have noted that Americans of that “greatest generation” are dying at the rate of almost 1,000 a day. Anxious to tell their stories before it is too late, Burns, Ward and company once again performed Herculean research to acquire such knowledge.
The end result is another superb published representation of the 15-hour, seven-part series that airs on PBS from September 23rd thru October 2nd. One can almost hear the background music (the soundtrack to “The Civil War” was a bestseller after the PBS miniseries aired) and see the images move as the veterans, their families and other civilians tell their harrowing stories.
A core of “main characters” takes readers from the “day of infamy” --- December 7, 1941, when Japan’s forces bombed Pearl Harbor --- to VJ Day some four years later. The shock and anger build slowly over the course of the program/book as America is pulled deeper and deeper into the fracas. These fighting men recall the intensity of battle, the overwhelming fear for their own lives and those of their comrades in far-off places like Bataan, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge and, of course, D-Day. But the horrors of war were also felt at home as families had to deal with the absence of their loved ones and the constant fear of receiving the telegram that bore the news of death, injury or, perhaps worse, someone missing in action.
Other books about WWII concentrate on individual battles, but in their effort to cover so much territory in such a compact space, the authors of THE WAR have to economize; it is of no major consequence, as the accompanying photos and other illustrations prove that less can be more. Ward and Burns pull no punches, as they edit their data to describe the perilous fighting that constantly plagued America’s forces (the project is almost exclusively presented through an American point of view).
After reading so many accounts of “snafus,” it seems a wonder that the Allied forces ultimately were able to defeat their enemies. THE WAR is at times almost too graphic in its presentation, but it serves as an excellent lesson in sacrifice, patriotism and a lost innocence that was irretrievable for millions of Americans and their progeny.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on June 2, 2011