America is smack-dab in the middle of The War, both literally and televisionally. However, in this age when our brave young men and women are dying overseas every day for a cause both ill-defined and seemingly without resolution, it's almost inspiring to immerse oneself in a time when America was compelled to engage in "a necessary war."
And immersion is the key with ex-Ann Arborite Ken Burns' retelling of World War II in The War, continuing at 8 p.m. tonight (Wednesday) and concluding next week on PBS (WTVS, Channel 56 in Detroit). Hoping to capitalize on a ratings bonanza even greater than it enjoyed with the landmark Burns documentary The Civil War in 1990, public TV stations are repeating each of the seven episodes of his 15-hour opus at least once Channel 56 is rerunning tonight's installment twice, at 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
Stations eventually will rebroadcast the entire work piecemeal (Chapter 1, "A Necessary War," resurfaces on WTVS at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3), the DVD box set is out Oct. 2, and the companion book is now on sale. At times it will feel like you're fighting the war, so long and intense is this sensory offensive. But, like the soldiers, once you enlist in this effort it becomes very hard to desert.
By all accounts, Burns long resisted this massive, far-flung subject. He didn't want "the War Guy" to be part of his legacy, and what could he reveal that the History Channel doesn't show every night? Then he learned 1,000 veterans from that era are dying every day. Nothing galvanizes a documentary maker more than the prospect of losing that many first-hand accounts.
Thus inspired, Burns and longtime co-producer Lynn Novick don't film a single general or military strategist. Instead, they focus on four 1940s American towns, how their citizens survived those times, and how they and their towns were changed forever. While you could argue the logic of their concept, there's no disputing this approach even giving the WW II street addresses of principal interview subjects imbues the work with a personal, heartfelt integrity many World War II overviews lack.
As the documentary rolls out, we realize why these towns were selected. Waterbury, Conn., known as "Brass City," possessed the craftsmanship required for small but vital wartime parts; Mobile, Ala., was a center of shipbuilding and racial segregation, while U.S. troops fought for freedom abroad; Luverne, Minn., a quintessential farming community, saw its teenage boys plucked right off their tractors and into combat; and Sacramento, whose 7,000 loyal Japanese-American citizens were stripped of their rights and forced to live in internment camps.
It's The War's concentration on the injustices suffered by blacks and Asians, beginning from Chapter 1, that raised the ire of Hispanic and Native American veterans even more conspicuous by their absence. The eventual compromise was to create additional footage, at the end of Chapters 1, 5 and 6, paying tribute to the largely Latino guerrilla force Carlson's Raiders and the infantryman Joseph Medicine Crow. But while the segments inform the doc as a whole, they feel tacked on, afterthoughts, which damages their intent.
Most impressive is The War's rich detail, how seamlessly the archival footage much of which I'll bet you haven't seen, not even on cable meshes with its first-person recollections. Warning: There are some grisly, horrific images of death and dying here; this is not PBS for the weak of stomach. Keith David's warm-as-a-blanket narration, jazz-infused for rhythm and comfort, often fails to equal the gravity of these wartime visuals. And you come away wondering how in the hell we're not all speaking German or Japanese, so awesome was the Nazi war machine, so relentless the will of the kamakaze pilots and so ill-prepared and incompetent the American response.
Tonight's rebroadcast will be followed at 1 a.m. tomorrow night (Thursday) by the special Valentia: Mexican-Americans in World War II. Burns couldn't have done more to advance the history of Hispanics in combat if he'd remembered to include them in the first place.
Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Chips off the old rock: If all your daddy does is sing the blues, why follow in his footsteps? Because you have the gift of music in your genes and a different perspective on his work and your own artistry. That's what comes through in the new concert special Gen2 Blues: Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival, premiering at 7 p.m. Saturday on Channel 56. Recorded live at the Royal Oak Music Theatre in October 2005, the hour features the vocals of offspring Tasha Taylor (daughter of Johnnie), Bernard Allison (son of Luther) and Kenny Neal (son of Raful). There's even a Tito Jackson sighting on guitar! DVDs containing 75 minutes of bonus footage will be available at the 9th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival Oct. 5-6 at the Music Hall.