The War [Miniseries] (USA, 2007)

The War a Ken Burns film DVDDirected by: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. If you’ve read my posts on the other Ken Burns docs I’ve seen, you’ll know I’m a pretty big fan. But I’m not sure how well this one measures against The West and Prohibition. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure how much of my lack of effusive praise for this one stems from anything Ken Burns and Lynn Novick actually did wrong, rather than my own personal reservations about the way that certain subject matter gets presented in the culture under certain ideological confines. Burns and Novick seem to have approached this, like their other works, with an aim to cover a lot of surface area at the expense of great depth, to make time for anecdotal asides, to make room for lighthearted fluff, without sparing too much of the down and dirty details. With the other two films, because they were set in the past and wrapped in that distance of the past, in historical periods that don’t possess the same cultural magic that the Second World War does, the filmmakers were able to keep a bit of distance with themselves. To me, the fact that they were dealing with the Second World War, the big one, the “great” war of our time, the “just” war, fought by and recounted by the “greatest generation,” makes it almost impossible for this production team to keep that distance. And they really can’t help it, either. These are not subversive people. It would never occur to them for a millisecond to dig into and present some stories of some American soldiers committing horrible crimes against other human beings. It wouldn’t do to give too much screen time to a Howard Zinn type who actually espouses the idea that the firebombings of Tokyo, Dresden and other parts of Europe, not to mention the catastrophic use of the nuclear bombs, were in fact NOT undoubtedly necessary, and were probably, in fact, carried out less in the name of the greater good than in the name of advancing the presence and military clout of the American military machine for the postwar world. All of the people interviewed, like most average people of the time, like the filmmakers themselves, believe that America is actually made up of inherently good people and its government was acting with inherently good reasons. The film doesn’t depict the war in quite as simplistic terms as those, but any glossing over of the negative side of America’s involvement is just that—a glossing over. This is, like the other films, primarily a propaganda picture, meant to reinforce the ideology of American moral goodness and universal greatness precisely through the extraordinary ordinariness of its everyday citizens. World War II was a fucking jackpot for this sense of American exceptionalism, allowing it to continue on well into the 21st century because in this instance, the bad guy was actually a really bad guy, AND more importantly, we need to all stop thinking critically about this war beyond that basic fact. We good, they bad, we won, period. This film has to finesse the issue a bit to make it more palatable for modern audiences, it can’t get away with anything that simplistic, so it shows us the race riots in Mobile, the hypocrisy of a nation that would lock up its Japanese American citizens and then ask them to go fight for freedom, and the senseless, relentless bombings of German civilians all throughout the war. I like all of this, and I appreciate all of this. But I guess it’s just not enough for me. The film dangles these things out there and leaves them, like “okay, now we’ve shown that the moral landscape is conflicting and complicated and not really aligned magically to demonstrate America’s superiority, so now we can get back to our safe assumption that the moral landscape is actually magically aligned to demonstrate America’s superiority.” BUT I’m sure the average viewer won’t see it that way, and in the grand, grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. But it just makes me want to go finally see The Longest Day. On a side note, the narration is done mostly by Keith David. Look him up, he’s the fucking coolest.

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