The War



8-10:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23
KCET (Los Angeles)

Tom Brokaw called them "the greatest generation," and that description is seconded by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in "The War." This 15-hour treasure recounts America's role in World War II on the battlefronts and the home front. It took longer to produce than the U.S. spent fighting the war, but the result is nearly as glorious.

It couldn't come at a better time. Although it offers no comparisons, there are obvious and stark contrasts viewers can draw between this war, which reached into every American life, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, despite advances in communication technology, feel remote and have scant impact on most Americans.

By showing the way American lives were shaped and changed by the conflict, "War" sets itself apart from previous documentaries on the subject. Even more ambitious than any previous Burns docu, including "The Civil War," this one paints a panoramic portrait not just of the fighting and the strategy in Europe and the Pacific but also of the impact on the country -- the entire American experience (to borrow the title of another PBS series).

To organize and shape this staggering volume of material, Burns selected four towns: Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; and the small farming community of Luverne, Minn.

There was nothing haphazard about their selection. Waterbury and Mobile became war towns as factories were converted and built to turn out ammo and equipment. In Mobile, racial strife was a factor as thousands poured into the city for wartime jobs. Waterbury was a city of identifiable ethnicities.

Sacramento had a sizable Japanese-American population that was herded into camps out of a misguided fear they would form a Fifth column. Tiny Luverne represented America's rural areas and small towns, which comprised a much larger part of America's population 65 years ago. Throughout the series, Tom Hanks reads the eloquent and moving words of the weekly columns written by Al McIntosh, former editor of Luverne's Rock County Star-Herald.

In each place, there were veterans of combat in diverse locations and from different services. There also were those left behind, often sweethearts or young wives anxious for their return. In plain, heartfelt language, family members read aloud the precious letters they exchanged, many of them the last remembrance of a beloved son or brother.

The vets open up about thoughts and sensations they felt during combat, their memories still vivid after more than a half century. There are a couple dozen and each is more poignant and riveting than the last. For many, the most difficult part was reconciling their moral aversion to kill with the need to defeat the enemy. All of this gets blended into the larger story of battles, strategy and weapons.

Burns' docus are famous for his astute choice of experts and authorities, but there are none in "War." Rather, the experts are the everyday people who know better than anyone what WWII was like.

One of Burns' favorite techniques is to bring still photos to life with slow zooms or pans, increasingly called "the Burns effect." There is some of that in "War," but the lion's share of video, apart from the interviews, comes from an abundance of vintage and combat footage.

Earlier this year, "War" was dogged by protests from Latino and Native American groups who claimed they were not represented. Burns responded by creating additional material, much in the style of the original, that was tacked onto the end of three episodes. Not only did this placate the groups without disturbing the docu, it kept the controversy from diverting attention from this artful masterpiece.

"War" will air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. Each episode will run for about two hours except for Sunday, Thursday and Sept. 30, which are two and a half hours in length. A companion book by "War" writer Geoffrey C. Ward and a soundtrack album will be released this month; a DVD boxed set of the series is set to bow Oct. 2.

KCET Los Angeles
Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C.
Producers-directors: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Producer: Sarah Botstein
Co-producers: Peter Miller, David McMahon
Teleplay: Geoffrey C. Ward
Cinematographer: Buddy Squires
Supervising film editor: Paul Barnes
Episode editors: Paul Barnes, Tricia Reidy, Erik Ewers
Music: Wynton Marsalis
Voice cast:
Adam Arkin, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Conway, Tom Hanks, Rebecca Holtz, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Carolyn McCormick, Robert Wahlberg, Eli Wallach
Narrator: Keith David