Salon gives Ken Burns's series a big thumbs up





Sixty-two years ago, the greatest conflict in the history of humanity came to an end. Fifty to 60 million people had died. Many millions more were wounded or had lost their homes. Nations were shattered. The most appalling genocide ever had taken place. And for the first time, nuclear weapons had been used, raising the specter of human extinction.

Every way of trying to tell a story this vast carries with it blind spots, reveals its own assumptions and biases. Ken Burns'"The War" is no exception. But this magnificent 15-hour series will stand as one of the most extraordinary accounts of war ever made. Panoramic in its sweep, unflinching in its openness to all the faces of war, crafted with rare intelligence and sensitivity,"The War" is an epic achievement.

Burns' subject has always been America. From"The Civil War" to"Baseball," from"Jazz" to"The West" (for which he was executive producer), to"Thomas Jefferson" to"Mark Twain," Burns has sought out subjects that are deep in the American grain, themes and people that illuminate our history, our ideals, our triumphs, our failures. He is obsessed with the things that hold America together, that define it, that are quintessentially ours.

The danger of being America's Storyteller is that you can end up producing Norman Rockwell history -- sweet and satisfying, but sentimental."The War" is the latest in a long line of celebratory works about World War II and the American heroes who fought it, including Tom Brokaw's"The Greatest Generation" and Steven Spielberg's"Saving Private Ryan"and"Band of Brothers." Those are praiseworthy works, ones that don't minimize the hideousness of combat or the moral ambiguity of war. But Burns' goal was more ambitious: to tell the whole story, to write a warts-and-all history of World War II. Was he the right man for the job?

In her review of the series in the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley argues that he wasn't. She criticizes the documentary for approaching the war from an American perspective -- that is, for being a documentary made by Ken Burns."Examining a global war from the perspective of only one belligerent is rarely a good idea," Stanley argues. Pointing out that America's self-centered ignorance helped lead us into the Iraq debacle, Stanley concludes that despite its virtues,"The War's" parochialism leaves it fundamentally flawed.

Stanley is right about Iraq and right about the dangers of American parochialism. She's also right that"The War" is parochial: It's about America from beginning to end. But she's wrong to conclude that this viewpoint is pernicious. That notion -- that a documentary is automatically suspect if it limits itself to one national perspective on a global war -- is dubious. ...


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