Ken Burns's compelling and continuing documentation of the American Experience has regained its poetry. After the triumph of The Civil War, there was a series of missteps. Jazz was saved by its subject. Baseball couldn't save Baseball. I confess that I can't separate my regard and admiration for Mark Twain from the sheer volume of information offered in Burns's documentation of his life, but the man who came and went with Halley's Comet eluded the Florentine Films magic.
The simple, straightforward elegance of The War is born of Burns's return to the concept of letting the people who endured the story tell the story. The film crew picked people from four American cities: Luverne, MN, Sacramento, CA, Waterbury, CN, and Mobile, AL. The people from these cities and towns who recount their experiences lend weight and poignancy to the assiduously amassed footage of the carnage and the horrors that were World War II. I don't know if he did so consciously, but Burns picked on-air testimonies that echo the letters that imbued his Civil War with so much pathos, humor, and humanity.
If you haven't seen Terence Malick's movie Badlands--a fictionalization of the Charles Starkweather-Caril Anne Fugate crime saga of the late Fifties--I recommend it highly (Starkweather's first murder had its genesis on my fifth birthday). It's a movie about murder, madness, and the Test of The Small Town. And I can't imagine it without the honey of Sissy Spacek's voice drizzled over it. So it is with Burns's The War. Keith David's narration of the film is a masterpiece. His voice becomes of a piece with the testimony of the people who lived the war even though he is much too young to have participated. David's narration is crafted from the words of Geoffrey C. Ward and they share a signal accomplishment in documentary filmmaking.
Wynton Marsalis's score is inspired. Those who lived during the time will not be able to distinguish music composed for the documentary from music of the period. A deft mix of original music and familiar themes make The War an emotional, transporting experience.
I lift a glass to Purtie Lee Drake, Mozee Thompson, and Joe Simons--warriors of that great conflict who have passed on. Thank you for all that you and your comrades have given us. We are in great danger of losing the legacy you helped pass on to us, but your examples of sacrifice and dedication live on within your children. Truth and justice are eternal. As a nation, we will find them or they will find us.
Woe be unto us if we do not accomplish the former.