DVD Review: The War

PBS/Paramount
Series •••• Picture •••½ Sound ••••½ Extras •••½

With his latest epic poem to the American experience, director Ken Burns eschews the analytical historians found in most other war documentaries to focus on servicemen, wives, and friends telling their own stories. Throughout the 15 hours of this seven-episode series, the filmmaker and his crew weave together images and sounds from a huge range of sources - an approach they've honed to an art. When they show photographs, for example, the camera moves so as to make the images almost seem like movie footage, especially since zooms (in or out) are used to transition to or from actual film footage in a smooth and uncontrived way.

By concentrating on just the American experience of World War II, Burns has created a particularly narrow perspective, leaving out the many points of view of peoples from other countries. But he completely achieves his goal of telling what it was like to be an American living through that period, whether abroad or at home.

The transfers are surprisingly good. Black-and-white photos are crisp, with wide-ranging contrast. Period footage looks quite good, even though damage is evident. Oddly enough, it's the recently filmed interviews that disappoint visually. They seem quite reddish at times, and background detail is almost completely lost. Perhaps this is a creative choice, but there's also quite a bit of noise in background colors that's distracting.

The terrific 5.1-channel mix uses the whole 360° sound field, always matching what's happening on the screen. A mortar might soar overhead and land in the rear, or start there and explode directly in front of you. Gunshots are all around, and every weapon has its own particular sound. Some of the big explosions rock the subwoofer, and at first I thought they'd just been beefed up from the source elements. However, in a production featurette included on this six-disc set, Burns reveals that all of the original footage was actually silent. Music is also skillfully laid under the dialogue and effects. The year it took to add sound to the whole series was obviously time well spent.

In addition to the featurette, Burns, with the help of co-producer Lynn Novick, provides commentaries for two episodes. Since he's one of the most articulate guys in the business, his talks are informative and entertaining treats. You also get 18 deleted scenes (only cut, I imagine, because of time constraints), a crisp stills gallery, and biographies of all the veterans who were interviewed for the series.

There's a warning about graphic violence - which includes shots of hundreds of dead (even decapitated) soldiers. But they're necessary to remind us of the huge loss of life. Hearing the numbers of those killed is staggering, but seeing scenes of the carnage truly brings the War home.

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