Ken Burns's history of WW II occasionally nostalgic, but usually insightful

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[Marianna Torgovnick is a professor of English at Duke University and director of the Duke in New York Arts and Media program. She is author of The War Complex: World War II in Our Time (University of Chicago Press, 2005).]

As a title, The War could refer to many things: the Civil War, World War I, Vietnam, Iraq. But for Americans who lived through the years from 1941 to 1945, it means just one thing — the Second World War, "the good war," "the big one," as Archie Bunker used to say.

Addressed to the war generation and its children and grandchildren, Ken Burns's new mega-documentary draws on eyewitness testimony for its interviews, and it is dedicated to those who fought. At times, it teeters on the brink of nostalgia for World War II and, occasionally, slips right in. But to its credit and for the most part, the documentary manages to balance the sense that all wars are brutal and savage with the desire to honor the bravery and spirit that won that "necessary war." It forms a remarkable document for our time, when the veterans of WWII are dying and the United States is once again at war.

Clocking in at 15 hours and airing over PBS stations in seven parts beginning September 23, the documentary, like much of Burns's work, is very long. It took six years to make, involved the work of many others, including Burns's collaborator, Lynn Novick, and brought together what can only be described as a stunning assemblage of archival footage. As a whole, the documentary gives an informed and surprisingly complete feeling for the American experience of the war, if not for aspects that excluded the United States.

World War II "was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting," a disclaimer that proceeds each episode reads, adding, "This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war." The decision to feature these four towns — Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Luverne, Minn. — injects a substantial feeling of Americana that makes The War resemble Burns's earlier work on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and the Brooklyn Bridge. ...

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