Moments of quiet storytelling hold real drama

Television review

September 23, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

The pictures move this time, and there are no talking-head experts like Shelby Foote. The historians are replaced by everyday folks who lived this history on the battlefield and the home front.

But such changes aside, Ken Burns' 14 1/2 -hour paean to World War II, The War, is every bit as grand and moving a documentary film as his landmark 1990 production, The Civil War.

Once again, questions are sure to be raised about what's left in or out by historians who feel Burns is poaching on their turf, or groups who feel they are not adequately represented in the final cut. Burns has already responded to pre-air complaints from Hispanic groups about their lack of representation by adding four scenes featuring storylines telling their history.

But a film like this is not as much a matter of creating a historical record as it is crafting a modern-day video version of the ancient Greeks' epic poems about mighty warriors, horrible slaughter and larger-than-life forces of darkness and light slugging it out under the indifferent gaze of the gods.

Think Homer and The Iliad, and you'll have a pretty good sense of the kind of spectacular storytelling ride The War offers across seven evenings on PBS starting tonight.

Productions this large live and die by the narrative strategies chosen to order vast quantities of data. One of the wisest choices made by Burns and co-director-producer Lynn Novick was in not trying to encompass the entire panorama of events that unfolded in the U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific from 1941 to 1945.

Most of the great and many of the small, but no less awful, battles are here. And using the kind of moviemaking audio technology that created such an overwhelming immediacy in Hollywood films like Saving Private Ryan, Burns makes viewers feel as the onscreen artillery explosions, machine-gun fire, bloodshed and chaos are happening right before their eyes - live.

But the films' greatest energy is generated by recollections from the homefront, not the battlefields. The genius of The War is found in the myriad ways it manages to capture and even re-create the texture of the lives of those who waited, at home or in relocation camps, for news about those they loved from the fronts.

Burns and Novick chose to focus on four cities and towns: Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn., a tiny farming community of 3,000 residents. Six years in the making, the film is steeped in the grassroots records of lives in those American locales: letters, diaries, snapshots, keepsakes, hometown newspaper columns and first-person oral histories.

The home front-battlefront recollections of a sister and brother, Katherine and Sid Phillips of Mobile, are mesmerizing. While he renders a chilling account of the horrific conditions stoically endured by ill-prepared U.S. troops in the Pacific during the early days of the war, she tells of another kind of courage as she describes the way teen girls like herself strove to remain upbeat, resolute and committed to helping "the effort" in any way they could - despite their fear and worry. Katherine Phillips is marvelous in creating a palpable sense of the visceral connection that she and her parents had to the radio when President Franklin Roosevelt took to the airwaves to speak to the nation about the war.

For all the cataclysmic destruction and death seen on the screen - and there is no shortage of graphic imagery - some of the most powerful moments are found in the quiet recollections of veterans who try to explain how the war changed their lives forever. No one is more eloquent in that regard than Quentin Aanenson, a Luverne farmer turned fighter pilot, who talks about what he sometimes sees in his dreams and how shaken those visions leave him as dawn breaks across the Minnesota plains.

Aanenson is the real-deal embodiment of the citizen-soldier - the living, breathing embodiment of the George Washington ideal inscribed in New York City's Washington Square Arch. Listening to his soft, tentative, troubled voice as he remembers the war is transporting.

Nowhere does the non-elite (no generals or historians), from-the-bottom-up storytelling concept work more effectively than in the excerpts read from the diary of Sascha Weinzheimer; she was 8 years old in 1941 when she and her parents were taken by Japanese soldiers from their farm in the Philippines and placed in a prison camp in Manila.

The echoes of The Diary of Anne Frank are unmistakable. And then comes the now-elderly Weinzheimer talking onscreen about the starvation, brutality and death she witnessed as a little girl.

Anyone not crying isn't watching.

Some will likely label such emotions as sentimentality or nostalgia. I don't think so.

In a recent interview, Burns acknowledged his awareness of such critiques, but said that what he's after with moments such as those with Weinzheimer and Aanenson is a "higher kind of emotional information and vibration."

Art and truth, not history - that's what he's after. And in The War, he again achieves both.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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