Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ken Burns Takes On "The War"

The PBS Series "The War" premieres on Sunday, September 23rd


Marines on Peleliu, 1944

Back in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns captured the attention and imagination of the whole country when PBS released his superb multi-part documentary on the Civil War. Endlessly imitated by other documentary producers, and repeated too often, it almost became a sort of cliche, in its sunset shots with wistful narration, overdubbed with mournful strains on violin or piano. Nevertheless, it totally remade the way documentaries are directed and produced. Burns is an incredibly talented researcher and director.

At the time, Burns vowed never to cover the topic of war in one of his documentaries again. Lately, however, realizing that World War II veterans are passing away at a rate of 1,000 a day, and hearing entreaties from several who want to get their long-held stories out before they too pass on, he has had a change of heart. Thousands of documentaries have been made before on World War II, but I have no doubt that Burns will make this one fresh and unique.

His new seven-part series The War will debut on Sunday night.
THE WAR, a seven-part series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America — and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

I think Burns will say that there are many similarities and crucial differences between that war and the current one, but one thing that is surely different really sticks out in my mind...

It is the saga of this privatized group of modern-day-Hessian mercenaries called Blackwater, an apparently unaccountable band of soldiers-of-fortune who are in the news again this week for allegedly killing civilians recklessly, and perhaps even in smuggling guns to the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

This outfit needs to be shut down. While it still can be. I'm not naive enough to think that the "Good War" was all good, but can you imagine a private army, answerable to no one, operating like this in our name in WWII? This is the United States of America, for crying out loud.

17 comments:

Steve Bogner said...

If WW2 was The Good War, then maybe the War in Iraq is the Outsourced War? I've heard that term before - outsourced war - and from what I've read and heard it seems to fit.

Garpu the Fork said...

I'll have to check it out...I saw ads for it on my PBS station yesterday.

crystal said...

Hey, even the Pope has his own mercenaries :-)

My grandfather served in both WWI and II, and brought back a Luger to keep in his sock drawer.

When I read about stuff like the fire bombing of Dresden or the bombing of Hiroshima, I have to wonder how good that good war really was.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve!

You've been busy, I see. Good to see you back again.

I've seen some Blackwater defenders whining about how the CIA and the State Department won't be able to get around anymore and function if Blackwater gets banned from operating in Iraq. That just proves to me what an untenable situation we've allowed ourselves to get into, relying on these cowboys so much.

Regarding the CIA... Whether it is operating with both hands (with the "kid gloves taken off"), or whether it is operating with one hand tied behind its back, it seems to me that it can't find its own ass in either case, no matter how many hands it's using.

As for the State Department, if they need more protection, they should rely upon the armed forces of the United States of America.

Garpu,

PBS... The best television on television! :-) Although, with their endless reruns of 'Are You Being Served', 'Celtic Woman', 'Roy Orbison and Friends', and Andre Rieu, I do wonder sometimes.

Crystal,

Grandpa was in two world wars? Wow.

When I read about stuff like the fire bombing of Dresden or the bombing of Hiroshima, I have to wonder how good that good war really was.

They all do have a tendency to get out of control, don't they?

Jeff said...

Crystal,

Hey, even the Pope has his own mercenaries :-)

There's a great idea for a movie!

Imagine Arnold in harlequins and orange and blue face-paint. The Kung Sanction! Instead of silencing theologians, the Vatican sends out Swiss Guard commandos to whack them.

"Hans... Remember vhen I said I'd come for you last? I lied..."

Then he starts chasing Leo Boff through the Amazon Rain Forest.

What do you think?

crystal said...

"Hans... Remember vhen I said I'd come for you last? I lied..."

hee hee :-)

cowboyangel said...

The New Yorker had a pretty harsh review. Some excerpts: "You have to work very hard, and take yourself very seriously as the keeper of the keys to America, to make a tedious documentary about the Second World War. But that is what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have done. . . . At fifteen hours, “The War” is too much of a not good enough thing. A spark is missing—a spark that you almost always find in even the most unassuming documentary on the History Channel. . . . Burns said that one of the motivations for the project was hearing, in the late nineties, that something like a thousand veterans of the Second World War were dying every day. That gave him a sense of urgency, without giving him any good ideas. During the publicity juggernaut for “The War” (and let history record that the ten-million-dollar marketing campaign includes “commemorative” cans of Budweiser and, as I live and breathe, oranges and eggs branded with station and time-of-broadcast information), Burns talked about focussing on “ordinary” people, while adding that he came to realize that, as it says on the Bud can, “in extraordinary times there are no ordinary lives.” This kind of burbling fatuousness does not aid the cause of getting to the truths of war, and Burns should know better."

Ouch.

I'm watching the other War: Bear-Ccwboys. Pokes just went up 34-10! The big bad Bears have had their butts thoroughly kicked and then handed to them on a platter. Somewhere, Tom Landry is smiling.

By the way, Landry was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot who flew 30 missions and survived a crash landing in Belgium after his bomber ran out of fuel.

cowboyangel said...

It's good to see the Iraqis finally doing something about Blackwater, even if we tell them they can't get rid of them. After all, who are they to think they can run their own country! But it points out again what a horrible plan Rumsfeld had for this war. I can't believe how badly the man mangled our military. And he'll never be held responsible.

Garpu the Fork said...

Hrm. Maybe I'm just jaded, but it feels very...sanitized. (After all, every war I remember has been broadcast--from the Faukland Islands to Iraq.) And one-sided. I realize they have to cut down a lot, but 60 years after the fact, it would've been interesting to get some German and Japanese stories, too.

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

You watched it too? I agree with you. A worldwide perspective would have been good, but I think Ken Burns makes his name as a sort of student of Americana. He bills himself as the guy who tells “American stories”. I think that’s probably why he stuck with the US interviews.

William,

That was a pretty devastating review, and having watched it last night, I suppose I can see a bit of what they are saying. Burns and Novick supposedly picked “ordinary” people from these four towns, but there was nothing ordinary about the guy from Luverne Minnesota. I found him to be really annoying, but maybe that’s just me… I was loving the old gal, however, from Mobile (Alabama), talking about the “boys in the waaah”.

So far, the thing did seem a bit flat compared to what I have come to expect from Burns, but it is a subject that has been covered so exhaustively. I’ll say this much for it… I’ve seen tons and tons of WWII documentaries with the same old tired footage, often shown out of context and in the wrong places, but these guys managed to find a lot of footage and images that I’ve never seen before, and they used them appropriately. This is what I think Burns really excels at - imagery. The research seems very good in that respect. I like the Wynston Marsalis jazz soundtrack too.

As a research historian, I was wondering what your take on Burns is in general? I know you’ve had to do a lot of George Templeton Strong research in your work on New York, so I imagine that you might have just had enough of Mr. Burns over the years.

In any case, I’m not ready to write off this documentary yet, but it may turn out to be that the old World at War series, with Laurence Olivier narrating, was the superlative work on the topic.
Speaking of historians, where is Liam lately? Hanging down at Columbia with Ahmedinejad?

Jeff said...

By the way, Landry was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot who flew 30 missions and survived a crash landing in Belgium after his bomber ran out of fuel.

Landry, without enough fuel? What kind of planning was that? It doesn't sound like the meticulous Tom Landry I knew...

William,

Have you given up on the Jets, in favor of returning to your Cowboy roots?

Rumsfeld. Yeah, he'll probably be "punished" by serving on the board of directors for several large corporations, where he can continue to look after his friends.

Garpu the Fork said...

I really enjoyed the Japanese-American interviews...if anything it tarnished the sheen of the "greatest generation" a bit, and my cynical self could get into the documentary. I think I was expecting more, since the Civil War documentary was so good.

Jeff said...

Garps,

The internment camps for the Japanese citizens were a real disgrace, a real blot on the country's record. Especially considering that the Japanese-American unit was the most highly-decorated unit in the war.

I've been finding it kind of disappointing compared to the Civil War series too. I've been kind of dozing off in the middle each night, before waking up near the end. My oldest kids, however, have been very interested in wacthing it. They've been hanging in there for a couple of hours a night on this, without me asking them to, which is unusual for this sort of thing. Therefore, I have to conclude that it must be pretty good.

cowboyangel said...

Confession: I believe I saw one episode of The Civil War. I haven't seen anything else by Burns.

I keep meaning to take out his Jazz series on DVD but haven't.

I haven't read the full Strong diaries - only parts that we're using in our project. Another researcher got to dive headlong into GTS.

Liam actually did get caught up in the Ahmedinejad furore at Columbia while coming home ffrom the library. He told me a little, but it wasn't much different from what the papers have said.

Well, Landry was young. The Country was young. Football was young. Maybe that crash landing helped him become the great Coach he was. "Note to self: Remember to tell the linebackers - 'Don't run out of gas and crash in the 4th quarter. It's a long war.'"

And, no, I haven't given up on the Jets. They're the #1 team. But I still root for the Broncos and, on occasion, the Cowboys. I still haven't quite forgiven Jerry Jones for firing Landry the way he did, but I think I said that before. And I haven't been a big fan. But I once Parcells brought all the old Jets down there, especially Vinny, I started paying a little more attention (though I wasn't a Parcells fan.) I like Wade Philipps as coach, and I like Tony Romo. It's kind of a fun team, this one.

cowboyangel said...

I was sad to see that you guys cut Vinny. I was still pulling for him to get a ring. But it's still early in the season. He might show up somewhere else. Maybe head back down to Tampa Bay, just to come full circle.

Jeff said...

William!

You're a historian, man. You have to see that Civil War series. It was a great piece of work.

That would be my dream job... Storyboarding, scripting, and researching the images and film clips for historical and news documentaries. Working with Ken Burns, Frontline, The American Experience, etc.. I can't think of anything more fun.

Tom Landry... I wonder if he wore that porkpie hat in the cockpit of his plane. He was probably serenely dreaming up ways to deal with the 3-4 defense (decades before it appeared) while cruising at altitude on his way to bomb the ball-bearing plants at Magdeburg.

Vinny Testaverde. Now, there was no injustice there on our part. Vinny was supposed to graciously retire after Bill Belichick gave him a chance to throw a touchdown strike on his last pass on his last series of downs, don't you think?

cowboyangel said...

Yeah, I guess I should finally watch it. That and teh Jazz one intrigue me. How's the WWII one going? We almost watched part the other night but decided to do an old comedy instead - we needed to laugh.

No injustice whatsoever. Belichick letting Vinny throw that touchdown was very classy. I just saw that he was back in camp and then let go of. But you're right, he probably should've retired after that.

I'm assuming by now you've seen the class action lawsuit filed by the Jets fans against Belichick? Only in New York. (Though they were actually from Jersey. Kind of like the team, I guess.)