REVIEW: Ken Burns’ Documentary “The War”









I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about World War II before Call of Duty: Kansans In World War II opened at the Sabatini Gallery last week. We started planning the exhibit over two years ago, and it became fairly evident early on that I was lacking some major history knowledge.

For example—don’t laugh—I didn’t know what the letters in V.E. and V.J. Days stood for until about four months ago. I had no idea there were Japanese internment camps in the United States until I went to college. And when I imagined the war, I only pictured it happening in Europe, not in North Africa or the Pacific. In fact, I thought the Pacific Campaign happened later, after Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

As an Associate Curator of exhibits at the Sabatini Gallery, it is my responsibility to educate myself about exhibit content when faced with unfamiliar territory. I wandered over to the stacks and found Ken Burns’ The War in book form first and was completely intimidated—so big and so much information. I learn better by watching than reading sometimes, especially if I’m not naturally drawn to a topic, so when I found his documentary of the same title on DVD, I got kind-of excited.

The War is fifteen hours long but held my attention the entire time. Burns approaches the task of covering the entire war by following four families from four towns in the United States: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alambama; Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California. Hearing firsthand accounts from start to finish made it immediately personal and interesting to me. Any of these stories could have been my own.

What was always taught as a dry timeline of sleep-inducing dates and names, The War made natural connections between events and people, and even campaigns and battles became distinct. But not only was I learning facts, I was sensing major social changes emerging as a result of the war. For example, I found myself wondering if the Second World War accelerated the Civil Rights Movement in this country because with everyone working together, how could you not see the inequity and hypocrisy of interring Japanese-Americans and maintaining Jim Crow laws while at the same time fighting for freedom and civil rights overseas?

The War on DVD leaves nothing out. It is everything war is supposed to be: sad, bloody, horrid. But it is also extremely moving. The stories are engaging, the footage is real and the spirit is alive. It felt entirely different from reading a book, and for the first time in my adult life, I actually paid attention and retained the information. But even more importantly, I am able to make connections between the events of the past and the effects it had had on the America I know.

Highly recommended! In addition to the book and DVD you can check out at the Library, PBS has an interactive site to explore for The War as well.

Heather Kearns

I've been the Sabatini Gallery's associate curator since 2004 and social media coordinator since 2008. My passion is helping people “get“ art, and by that I mean creating an environment both in-house and online which fosters a greater understanding, confidence, and sense of enjoyment from the art experience. Art should be easy to access and available to everyone. I take helping people very seriously.