When you hear that Ken Burns is making a PBS documentary about World War II, the first thing you want to know is, Will it be shorter than World War II? It manages, but at 14 hours, The War still promises a sweeping view using a close-focus framing device, the conflict's effect on four American communities. What's left to tell us about a war that has given us countless books, Hollywood movies and pretty much the entire History Channel?
For starters, Burns has said, the film, drawing on a vast range of archival footage, will offer a rawer view of combat than Americans are used to seeing in documentaries. (Maybe too raw: the film will include unbleeped profanities, risking FCC fines.) It also hopes to leave a substantial first-person record of soldiers' experiences at a time when a thousand WW II vets are dying each day. The seven-part series includes interviews with 40 veterans and other survivors of the war era; the remaining reminiscences are voiced, Civil War-style, by actors like Tom Hanks and Samuel L. Jackson. The War is bound to generate excitement among history buffs, but PBS is taking a risk by launching it on Sept. 23, in the midst of all the network premieres. Now there's a high-stakes battle plan.