Ken Burns Documentary Mired In Controversy

Ken Burns-- he of Jazz, Baseball and other one-word titled documentaries that Sum Up Our National Identity-- is back this fall, but not everyone’s excited about it. Well, not everyone is ever excited by a new Ken Burns documentary, though you’d think some people could maybe just flip to it during commercial breaks from The Hills. In any case, the people who care about Ken Burns documentaries are not all jumping up and down in excitement this time, and for very different reasons.

The documentary, titled simply The War, is an expansive and exhausting look at World War II, organized by the experiences of four small towns across America. 14 hours long, and aired over seven nights, The War chronicles every aspect of America’s involvement, from Pearl Harbor to VJ-Day, the European to the Pacific Theater.

Well, everything except Latinos. Burns has been under fire from Latino advocacy groups for months now, who argued that the contributions of over half a million Hispanic troops were all but ignored in the film. Burns and PBS agreed to add new footage to the film, and hired a Latino filmmaker, Hector Galan, to help him do it. PBS also moved the air date from September 16-- the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month-- to September 23.

Burns’ feet still aren’t out of the fire, though; TheCelebrityCafe reports that some see Burns’ willingness to re-edit as political correctness, rather than an actual desire to set the record straight. “We understand perfectly that he only added the new interviews under pressure and, right now, it looks like he's not very proud of that new material,” said Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Ouch.

As if that weren’t enough, PBS stations are also wringing their hands over the documentary’s use of dreaded profanity, source of immense FCC fines completely out of lines from the actual harm inflicted by their use. An entire episode of the show is titled “FUBAR,” and if I have to tell you what that means, well, just wikipedia it. The soldiers in the film are more helpful about explaining the term’s meaning, though, and use the f-word to describe it. The word comes in again to describe the meaning of “snafu” (again, wikipedia is quite helpful). Two more profanities slip in-- one starting with “s” and another ending in “-hole”-- when a soldier describes what it’s like to be shot at while in a B-17 airplane.

The San Francisco Gate has a great article interviewing PBS station managers and Burns himself about the potential fines faced by stations that air the words un-bleeped. Burns says the stations’ hesitance is "absurd and yet, at the same time, I understand it. Public television has this impossible mandate to be all things to all people." Stations can’t be certain whether the FCC will fine them, given that ABC went unscathed after airing Saving Private Ryan unedited during prime time, and the FCC hasn’t said what it will do. Still, a California station was fined $15,000 for airing profanity in Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, and fines for The War could reach up to $325,000.

I was one of those people who saw Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl and walked away unharmed, and I get more than my fair share of profanity on HBO most days, but still: this strikes me as beyond absurd. We are living in a time of war, and if we can’t handle hearing a detailed description of being shot at, what are we but ostriches with our heads in the sand? World War II veterans are dying every day, and hearing them describe their actual experiences will become a very rare thing. It’s imperative that we remember them as the young soldiers they once were-- soldiers who would, on occasion, let the f-bomb fly. Particularly when they were, for f---’s sake, being shot at. If we truly want to honor their accomplishments, let them speak in their own words.

The War will air four two-hour segments the week of Sept. 23, and three more two-hour segments the next week; inclusion of expletives will depend on your local station.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend