Ken Burns: New Yorker pans WW II series as dull

Historians in the News

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 with their fifteen-hour series “The War,” which will begin on Septembe 23rd, on PBS. They’ve taken a subject that is inexhaustible and made it merely exhausting. Scene by scene, interview by interview, the series doesn’t bore, if you are of the school that believes that everyone’s experiences are at least somewhat interesting, and that the experiences of those who went through the Second World War are more interesting than most. What’s off-putting is Burns’s approach to the material, and by that I don’t mean what has come to be known over the year since his 1990 opus on the Civil War as “the Ken Burns effect”—the pan-and-zoom technique with which Burns creates a sense of life and movement in still images and squeezes emotional juice from them. During the months-long promotional run-up to “The War,” Burns emphasized that his documentary would be different from the usual treatment of the Second World War. It would highlight the experiences of people from four towns (Waterbury, Connecticut Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama; and Luverne, Minnesota, a small farming community about thirty miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and would be a “bottom-up” look at the war—concentrating on the people who actually did the fighting (and the waiting at home)—as opposed to a top-down perspective featuring generals and politicians. In addition, there would be no “experts”—no military analysts, no historians. (There will also be, in some places no swearing; local stations worried about F.C.C. fines for offensive language are being offered a version of the series which removes the four instances of tangy language that unaccountably made their way into a documentary about what it’s like to kill, to see your friends be killed, and to spend endless days and nights in unrelieved fear of being killed yourself....

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