War Is Hell -- But Heavenly TV
On Friday, TV Guide editors got an early glimpse at a new masterpiece. When it comes to the latest anything by Ken Burns, it's never too soon to get the buzz started.
The great and eloquent documentarian and his longtime producing partner Lynn Novick stopped by the offices to show selected scenes from his latest epic:
, a seven-part, 14 1/2-hour exploration of World War II through the eyes and emotionally charged recollections of "ordinary" citizens who either served in the trenches of the European or Pacific theaters or who lived through it on the home front. No talking-head experts or academics in this vivid history - it's mostly first-person, focusing on nonfamous (for now) members of four communities meant to symbolize the impact of this "worst war" on a country at once united and shattered by the horrors of combat. (The witnesses hail from Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota.)
Burns told us that WWII veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day, so the timing is as right as it will ever be to get their stories on film. These stories are further illustrated by rarely seen, viscerally wrenching footage that goes way beyond the newsreels the public was fed at the time.
From legendary to lesser-known battles, through to the liberation of the concentration camps, even the most familiar material takes on a new, devastatingly affecting urgency as narrated by these everyday Americans. It looked to many of us in the screening room like
could well rival Burns' breakthrough landmark
The Civil War
in its simple yet profound artistry and universal appeal. (I go way back with Burns, all the way back to covering
The Civil War
when it premiered in 1990 and once visiting his New Hampshire home and studios while he was still compiling his classic
documentary. But this is the first time I ever screened part of one of his works in his presence. In a word: awesome.)
PBS will air
starting Sept. 16. Taking a page out of cable's playbook, PBS will make the series readily accessible, airing each episode twice the night of its premiere, with marathons on the weekend. And once it finishes its run, episodes will be replayed on a weekly basis on Wednesday nights. From what little Burns was able to show us,
promises to be an unforgettable experience. Thankfully, PBS will do its part in making sure as many people get a chance to see it as possible.