October 12, 2007

The War

I somehow got myself inducted into the PBS Viewer Advisory Group, which means they send me surveys about shows now and then. I once got to preview a PBS program on DVD. This time they asked about The War, the latest documentary by Ken Burns. The Civil War is one of the best documentaries of all time. But his latest effort? Not so much. Here's what I told them:

The framing device is limiting and cloyingly sentimental. The narration is unfocused and often condescending. Important stuff is left out, and some of the material is plain wrong. (Burns apparently didn't watch "Hitler's Sunken Secret" on NOVA.) The thesis of the whole thing seemed to be: the U.S. military is run by idiots. Why not just play 15 hours of Tokyo Rose tapes?

Most of the material is covered more thoroughly on other PBS documentaries, such as "Victory in the Pacific" on The American Experience and "Sinking the Supership" on NOVA. KUED's Utah WWII Stories is ten times better. Failing to mention the Doolittle Raid and the battle of Taffy 3 in a full-length WWII documentary only signals contempt for honest-to-God heroism.

In a revealing fit of psychological projection, baby-boomer Burns simply couldn't hide how he really feels about the "Greatest Generation": "You SOBs don't deserve all that praise and I know it."

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# posted by Blogger Joe
10/12/2007 5:15 PM   
You forgot to add dreadfully boring and perhaps the most annoying music ever in a documentary. (And what the hell is it with using an eight year old song, and a pretty bad one at that, repeatedly?)

The big errors were bad enough, but the minor errors almost drove me nuts even more. He had so many photographs and film footage clips out of place that it was clear Burns didn't have any knowledgeable advisers on his payroll. (In one unintentionally hilarious scene, he showed a bomber with the sound of a WWI rotary piston engine in the background.)

The low point, however, was when a pampered white woman stated that there was no racism in Mobile, Alabama before WWII!

As Gene rightly says, on PBS alone, there have been a plethora of excellent WWII documentaries. History Channel has shown many more. The HBO series "Band of Brothers" captures the second world war from a soldier's point of view in a way few productions have.

(I find many episodes of Utah WWII Stories a little to overly sentimental, but still, as Gene says, much more interesting than Burns' effort.)

It did make me wonder why "The Civil War" was so much better. My answer: Shelby Foote. He provided both the anchor of the documentary and he (and the other experts) kept Burns honest.