By David Bianculli
September 21, 2007
Like his “The Civil War,” which PBS presented 17 years ago to the minute, “The War” has the potential to be a national TV event, focusing our attention on a topic that others have mined before, but never in quite the same way.
How good is it?
With “The War,” Burns – along with co-director and co-producer Lynn Novick, writer Geoffrey C. Ward and his massive filmmaking team – has forged a masterwork. “The War” isn’t just the best thing Burns has done since “The Civil War.” It’s the best thing he’s done including “The Civil War.”
It demands an effort to watch, even though PBS is making it as easy as possible: four nights one week and three nights the next (beginning Sunday at 8 on WNET/Ch. 13).
The focus of the narrative is intentionally narrow, which is what makes the complaints about excluding Latinos from the history so misplaced. (In the end, two segments about Latinos, and one about an unlikely Native American WWII hero, are shoehorned after the climaxes of three episodes, but they feel as tacked on as they are.)
“The War” looks at four American cities, one from each quadrant of the country – Sacramento in California, Mobile in Alabama, Waterbury in Connecticut and the small town of Luverne in Minnesota. We learn about what happened to some of the young men who left those towns to defend their country. We learn about other soldiers as well, but always from the foxhole and fighter-pilot level, and always mindful about the sacrifices and concerns of loved ones back on the home front.
This four-town approach allows us to know some of the war’s combatants very well, and to marvel at the stories and humble bravery of the survivors. But while microcosmic in one sense, “The War” is all about the larger picture in another. It unfolds its story chronologically so that it’s always the Pacific as well as Europe, and detailed enough to include both the firebombing of Dresden and the shark-infested waters around the sunken U.S.S. Indianapolis. The strategy of the war, and its progress, are reflected in old-fashioned maps with arrows and colors like ones from newsreels of the 1940s.
Instead of historians and military experts, “The War” spends time with survivors and witnesses – remarkable people. They display a lot more humor than you might expect, given the topic, and an admirable amount of wisdom and perspective. They’re more than enough to propel this story but “The War,” which ends shortly after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has two secret weapons of its own.
One is singer Norah Jones, whose rendition of “American Anthem” at the close of Sunday’s opening episode is so beautifully sung, it wrenches the heart like the Sullivan Ballou letter did at the end of the first part of “The Civil War.”
The other is Al McIntosh, a small-town newspaperman who served Luverne as editor of the Rock County Star-Herald. He wrote a wartime column that was so candid, informal and honest, it may as well qualify as the very first blog. Tom Hanks reads the words of McIntosh throughout “The War,” and, before long, emerges as this epic’s Shelby Foote, the soul of the project.
Watch “The War” the first night, and you’ll make plans so you can witness the rest. You’ll never forget the people you meet, or the words and music you hear, or the things you see. Bravo to all involved. And bravo to WNET also, for being bold enough to televise the unedited version.