Burns’ “War” Embattled: Hispanic Outcry, Stylistic Sameness Dull Its Documentary Luster
Warning: Non-Sports Content
I’ve been checking out segments of the new Ken Burns documentary film The War on PBS. Guess what? It kinda sucks.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that, unlike the Hispanic Americans who raised a stink about the film, I do not think Burns is a racist. No, the guy whose three previous major PBS features—The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz—basically rubbed the white man’s face in his transgressions against the black man is no racist. If anything, he’s a guilt-mongerer, so intent is Burns in playing the race card to his own political and financial advantage. How best to get PBS execs to buy in to your movie plans? Simply remind us—over and over and over and over—about how vile white people in America have been to minorities in the bygone past.
Burns is at it again in The War. As dolorous fiddles play in the background, he wastes little time in diving into the internment of Asian Americans. Still photos of sad-eyed Asians, mixed with interview footage of survivors of that experience, serve as a new reminder: We white Americans were lousy to yellow-skinned people, too.
Later, in a segment about homefront doings in the South, Burns plays the race card again, this time about blacks and their status as (supposed) second-class cititzens, replete with ominous piano chords and more photos of lost-looking African Americans.
I don’t get it. I thought this was supposed to be about World War II. You’d certainly never know it based on Burns’ limp coverage of the Battle of Midway. If you want to get a real sense of that critical ocean contest between the Japanese and American navies, you can’t do much better than Hollywood’s Midway (1976). Don’t let the all-star cast—Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum—fool you: the factual recounting of the battle and the strategies involved is well-rendered. The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) also outdoes Burns on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As do many war studies previously broadcast on, for example, The History Channel or other television outlets. If it’s the events and personalities of war you want, documentarians hellbent on war have done it better. I haven’t caught Burns’ take on D-Day yet, but you can bet it will not surpass Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which in effect created its own original, documentarylike footage.
Prior to The War’s grand unveiling this week on PBS, there was an event commemorating its completion which was broadcast on C-SPAN. On the dais was Kenny, surrounded mostly by females, including his co-producer Lynn Novick and the major PBS execs who helped support his filmmaking efforts. They were all women too. Little bowl-haircut Kenny stepped up to deliver a sober, serious-minded tribute to his distaff patrons. And now that I’ve seen parts of The War, I can aver pretty confidently that the film’s failure has a lot to do with the feminization of culture, especially tax- and charity-funded culture.
Don’t show a manly war, by golly, Ken. No, that would “offend” the ladies. So what we get instead is a feature that neither portrays war and its evil origins and brutal (read: testosterone) resolution nor dares to easily accept that Americans were united in the cause even in spite of some of the unfortunate by-products of its reality. Yes, it’s sad that Asian Americans were interned; yet the wartime exigencies of security became actionable and that is what happens during war sometimes. Burns might claim that this is simply what he has portrayed, but as we all know, it often isn’t what you say but how you say it that counts.
Now that Burns is not just a historian (of sorts) anymore—and is actually a history re-creator—you can in part understand why the Hispanic Americans were apprehensive that their contribution to the war effort might not be well enough represented in his work. For generations to come, the Burns documentaries will be seen as gospel, immune from any apparent criticism as they play over and over on public television for maybe eons. Just as future generations will be reminded how awful white people were to Africans and Asians, so too would no one be reminded that Hispanics actually participated with other Americans in the Second World War. That's how pervasive Burns’ spin on history has come to be regarded as “truth.”
Burns claimed initially that this was no oversight—only that in choosing to tell his story in his way, the issue of the breadth of Hispanic American war service never came up, and was not relevant to his greater goal and vision. Personally, I actually believe this could be the case. Of course, Burns couldn’t show white people being cruel to, or dismissive of, Hispanic Americans—not like he could for blacks or Asians—so you can make up your own mind whether you think it was an innocent oversight or not. The incident is certainly rich with irony, though.
Accordingly, Burns agreed to make some changes in the film, interpolating some footage pertinent to the Hispanic issue. I caught a fairly lengthy segment about a half-Hispanic survivor of the conflict, who told tales of his Marine unit. To be honest, it was boring—and his ethnicity had nothing to do with that. And come to think of it, it kind of looked just thrown in.
As for what else I’ve seen of the The War: the footage of soldiers in and out of battle looks moldy and often irrelevant and clearly not always are the images on screen truly related to the words of the typically pious voiceover of narrator Keith David. It is not a cohesive story of war being told; the through lines describing strategies and battles and the progress of the conflict are disjointed, so intent is Burns on staying off the “good stuff”—i.e., what war buffs like—and instead concentrating on the “individual” or “societal” experience.
The crying fiddles, the folkish recital-style piano, the incessant blare of Benny Goodman’s clarinet and Tommy Dorsey’s big band music, Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas—all sound overused and stale and, worst of all, the easy hallmarks of Burns’ other projects. The angled camera moving up and over archival photographs has become a tired idea, so much a cliche now that iPhoto programs actually give the home moviemaker access to it: the so called “Ken Burns effect.”
In other words, Burns has become a parody of himself, and his latest effort provides confirming evidence.
Why did he do a documentary on World War II? Even after both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day were long gone and celebrated with great publicity? Even after Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” shtick had filtered its way thoroughly through the popular American consciousness? Even after Saving Private Ryan had already captured the historical hearts and imaginations of millions?
I’m sure Kenny will have the articulate answer. The main fiddle theme from The Civil War will swell in the background. The camera will begin in the southeast corner of a black-and-white photo of his earnest, beatific face, eventually panning up northwesterly to center his serious visage. Then the voice of Keith David, or maybe even Tom Hanks, will say: “Because I can—Ken Burns, 2007.”