It seems a bit strange to think of it now, but just less than a decade ago, before Everything Changed, America went through a strange, sentimental obsession with World War II and the men who had fought it. In just a few years, box offices and bookstores were filled with Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, various Stephen Ambrose vehicles and Tom Brokaw’s wildly successful Greatest Generation franchise. We even decided to build and consecrate a memorial to commemorate the fallen–sixty years after the war itself had ended.
With the country mired in the trivinalia of scandals and stock markets, the public seemed to be longing for some capital-H History. And since no one does capital-H History quite like celebrated documentarian Ken Burns, it was really only a matter of time until he would bring his somber and much imitated brand of storytelling to bear on World War II. He even enlisted Tom Hanks–who, ever since Saving Private Ryan, has opened up a sideline in WWII nostalgia–to do some of the series’ voiceovers.
But in the six years that it took Burns to create The War (which debuted this week on PBS), quite a bit has changed. History has arrived. If we were longing for an epic struggle, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have tried their darnedest to give us one. That leaves The War as a strangely anachronistic document even before it aired. And while it is generally engaging and informative, it ultimately suffers from a kind of double nostalgia: suffused with both a longing for the wartime days of national solidarity and the placid, trivial days of the late 1990s when that very longing itself was uncomplicated by the reality of actual, in-the-present war.
Burns’s documentary is ordered around the experiences of civilians and combatants from four different American towns: Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama. Burns has tracked down hundreds of interviewees, some of whom are quite poignant and engaging, and hours of incredible battlefield footage (to which he has, action-movie-style, added a soundtrack of gunfire and explosions). We track the men who went away to fight and the women they left behind; life on the homefront with its rationing and scrap metal drives and gold stars in the windows of grieving mothers, and life on the front lines, with its unceasing cycle of violence and boredom, horror and discomfort, cruelty and camaraderie.
The bottom-up point of view can serve Burns well–there’s a fascinating segment in Episode Two about the race riots that broke out in Mobile, Alabama, as an influx of black workers moved to town to work in the segregated shipyards, and the harrowing tale of a family of American civilians trapped in the Japanese POW camp in Manila. As one would expect from any Burns production, there are more than few moments of genuine pathos: the look on the face of Ray Leopold, a Jewish medic from Waterbury, as he describes coming upon a concentration camp; the stoic way Quentin Aanenson describes a panic attack in the cockpit of his shot-up airplane that paralyzed his right arm and the nightmares about the incident that have plagued him his whole life. They are so powerful he occasionally awakes to find his right arm paralyzed. Or the story of a Japanese American soldier tells of going to visit his family in an interment camp before he ships out, and being barred by the soldiers guarding the camp from bringing his parents a fifth of whiskey. “Hell of a war, isn’t it?” the guard tells him by way of apology.