Beverly Gage Misses the Mark on Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

Ken BurnsThe War–a seven-episode, fourteen-hour documentary on the Second World War, released in 2007–was never going to find favor with all who viewed it. Mostly because it is unabashedly sentimental, an unforgivable sin for those of ironic and skeptical persuasion. Even granted this, Beverly Gage‘s review in Slate–which I read after finishing my view of Burns’ opus–seems particularly misguided.

For Gage, The War is “manipulative, nostalgic, and nationalistic”, a bit like making “The Civil War solely from the Union perspective.” Of course, as Gage admits, Burns set out to provide an incomplete, all-American narrative:

Burns readily admits that The War is neither a complete nor balanced account of World War II. “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting,” reads the opening screen of each episode. “This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” He means this quite literally.

Imagine that: being forced to take a movie-maker’s manifesto at face value.

The War showcases a handful of lively, eloquent Americans from four disparate towns—Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn. The series contains no identifiable historical experts. (Though cultural historians Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes appear frequently, they are also veterans and are identified only as “infantry” and “Marine pilot.”)

This identification should have given the game away to Gage; this documentary was never intended to be an academic analysis of the Second World War; it is meant to give voice to those who are not often heard from–those who remained at home, and those who fought the war.

The War offers no commentary from the German or Japanese side, or even from the British or Canadians.

But a multi-faceted narrative of the Second World War need not be contained in the same source; perhaps we could stitch one–of the various home fronts during that conflict–by stitching together German, Japanese, British and Canadian ones. And since Gage did bring up the topic–why leave out the personal narratives associated with the many home fronts in that war? You know, the Russian, the Polish, the Czech, the Indian–the list goes on.

Indeed, apart from a few necessary mentions to move the plot along, the film says little about Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito, Churchill, FDR, or any of the other national leaders who presided over the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.

Of all the bizarre critiques that could have been mounted of Burns’ documentary, this one surely takes the proverbial cake. The Second World War remains the most profusely documented and forensically analyzed human event ever; millions of pages and miles of film have been expended on it; its political, economic, and military dimensions have been the object of study for professionals and amateurs alike. The names that Gage lists above are among the most recognizable names in human history–largely because of their role in the Second World War. And yet, somehow, an academic historian insists that a narrative, intended to be narrowly focused through a very particular lens, is flawed, precisely because it disdains traveling through some deep, well-worn grooves.

I could go on on, but I’ll stop here. Gage was clearly determined to castigate Burns for not having made another documentary altogether. Her mood in the review suggests she would have slammed comic book artists for using too many illustrations and comedians for being too facetious.

2 comments on “Beverly Gage Misses the Mark on Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks Samir. I completely agree. So many critics castigate creators for not making the work the critic thinks should have been made according to some commandments we are all supposedly signed up to!

    KB’s forte is telling the illuminating human story which he does very well.

    Regards from Thom at the immortal,jukebox.

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