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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Page updated at 01:32 PM

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Ken Burns' 'The War,' beginning Sunday on PBS

Star Tribune

Ken Burns has never served in the military, hasn't held public office and, I assume, enjoys a diet of more than hot dogs and apple pie.

Yet the documentarian is one of this country's greatest living patriots, though not the rah-rah cheerleader type who recites the pledge of allegiance five times a day and favors red-white-and-blue underwear. Burns' passion runs too deep to settle for unabashed love. Throughout his work — "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz" — Burns has painted a much more complex America, with all its triumphs and tragedies, bravery and brutishness, pride and prejudices.

"The War," his latest and best epic, co-directed by Lynn Novick, continues the trend, presenting a 14-hour-plus history lesson on World War II unprecedented in its scope and spirit.

Make no mistake about it: This is a foot soldier's story. Presidents and generals are relegated to the sidelines. The heroes — homebound girlfriends, prisoners of war, small-town journalists, fighter pilots — hail from four U.S. towns. They make for moving subjects, interviewed in settings that resemble your grandmother's living room, quietly sharing stories the Greatest Generation is traditionally too horrified or humbled to relate.

There's the Bataan march survivor recalling how, after a week without food or water, his tongue wouldn't go back in his mouth; the mess sergeant who got down on his knees in the dirt and prayed, "God help us. You come yourself. Don't send Jesus. This is not a place for children"; the flier who shot so many bullets during one mission that his right hand stopped functioning, a moment that still haunts him in his sleep.

This is no John Wayne flick. Burns reminds us time and time again that there was nothing romantic about this ordeal. Yes, it made us a superpower, and, yes, we overcame the enemy. But at least 50 to 60 million people paid the price, the vast majority being civilians far away from our coastlines. We placed Japanese Americans in internment camps, while German Americans and Italian Americans were untouched. We made horrendous mistakes and were cursed with inept leaders (Gen. Douglas McArthur, a nine-star figure in most textbooks, comes across as a dangerous coward).

"It brought out the best and worst in a generation and blurred the two so that they became, at times, indistinguishable," recites narrator Keith David, who manages to sound matter-of-fact and Shakespearean at once.

David is joined by some other familiar voices, including Tom Hanks, who fills in for Luverne, Minn., newspaper editor Al McIntosh, whose columns Burns has compared to Mark Twain stories. I wouldn't go that far, but the combination of his homespun views on the war and Hanks' incomparable recitation make for a memorable duet.

Speaking of music, make sure to keep an extra box of tissues nearby whenever Burns cues up Norah Jones' rendition of "American Anthem," an opera number reworked into a soulful ballad that plays hauntingly over shots of rotting corpses and ticker-tape parades.

Some viewers will certainly be tempted to take this all in one or two sittings, either through TiVo or from the complete DVD set, coming out Oct. 2. I don't recommend it. Watching more than three hours of these stories at a time is like a donkey kicking you in the chest. It's just too much.

But by no means should you avoid "The War." It is an important historical document, joining the ranks of "Roots" and "Harvest of Shame" as must viewing.

It's not easy. Being a true patriot never is.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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