TV on Blu-ray Review: WWII in HD (2009)

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Similar to the way that you can describe an individual in a single sentence, TV networks-- much like people-- can also be summed up even quicker and with the clarity of an actual antenna as opposed to the intuitive human kind. Thus, when it comes to characterizing the Peabody Award winning, educational History Channel, undoubtedly “World War II” would be one of the first impressions of the network that would spring to mind.

And indeed the channel has broadcast their fair share of in-depth military documentaries and analytical specials focusing on various aspects of the war from all sides that typically get little attention in traditional classroom environments or in the ever popular WWII genre of international filmmaking.

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Yet, just fifteen minutes of WWII in HD was enough for me to recognize that the passionate craftsmanship and painstakingly precise content on display in the ten hour televised portraiture was unlike any other televised war document I'd ever seen on disc, let alone on any television network.

Epic in scope, Frederic Lumiere's extraordinarily ambitious work was the result of a two-year global search that culled footage from over three thousand hours of archived reels and private collections to bring us never-before-seen candid clips cut together to immerse viewers in a tapestry of life during wartime in the 1940s.

Using an American approach that's similar to other WWII docs, the 2009 film which aired as a miniseries and has recently been released both on high definition Blu-ray and a DVD that keeps the HD in its name, is quick to differentiate itself from the pack.

Wisely it avoids a Band of Brothers signature by looking at one specific group or-- in the case of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line respectively, by centering on an individual mission or battle by incorporating first-person anecdotes from twelve unique individuals who served on behalf of the United States.

And although the ten episodes could all be considered standalone since it's easy to let yourself get caught up in the war stories wherever they take place and regardless of whose point-of-view we're following at any moment, when viewed consecutively from start to finish, it's much more powerful as Lumiere and his first-rate behind-the-scenes crew manage to weave a dozen separate accounts on the experience together by moving back and forth in not only who we're listening to but also in the presentation of the events.

Still, it has been argued that the film shouldn't be taken as literally as other documentaries since visually we're presented with a series of images compiled from thousands of hours of footage and not absolutely representational of what it looked like to the dozen involved.

Despite this, my personal belief is that the way that the first 16mm color footage was used and fragile film reels were preserved into “one of the largest military collections in the world,” should silence any critics, especially when you consider the fact that we're seeing images we've never been fortunate enough to explore before from Lumiere and company who ensure that we feel like we're truly part of the experience.

Likewise, as it should, great emphasis is placed on first-person interviews and recollections whether it's from read diaries or journals from the twelve Americans. Voiced by celebrities ranging from Ron Livingston to Steve Zahn to Amy Smart along with featuring clips from candid interviews with the living subjects, original news broadcasts and radio transmissions from the Library of Congress the series also benefits greatly Gary Sinise's clear-cut and compassionate narration that gives us a good bearing of time and place.

Augmented by the visions of everyday life or battlefield death transferred to pristine high-definition complete with a more startling soundtrack transfer to give us an unprecedented look at the horrors of war and the unsung heroics of humanity in the face of tyranny, we find ourselves moved by each of the people whom we feel we come to know as they move through the horrors of the war which at the start of the miniseries finds Hitler's soldiers occupying eleven countries containing seventy million people kept under the Nazi flag.

Following the takeover of Europe through Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal all the way through D-Day, Iwo Jima and other key conflicts in both the Pacific and European “theaters,” the film chronicles everything up through the “fall of the Axis” and the end of the war.

And throughout we journey with a pacifist, a Japanese American soldier and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen who reveal the racism in the ranks of the service, along with a brave nurse whose optimism is challenged, journalists, soldiers, and-- in the most fascinating point-of-view from the start-- an Austrian Jewish immigrant who fled the Nazis but ended up battling the Japanese instead of Hitler.

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With the absence of commercials, the History Channel's remarkable series drops down from ten to roughly seven and a half hours. Additionally this pulse-pounding Blu-ray release from A&E Television Networks delivers Lumiere's masterwork in the same crisp high definition that he had intended with full 1080 pixels as opposed to the loss of HD on DVD and gives viewers access to candid behind-the-scenes featurettes on how the remarkable miniseries came together along with character profiles to get an instant refresher on who the players are.

While the release of the 2-disc set does nothing to change History Channel's reputation as TV's WWII network, it does manage to set the bar high enough that you're wondering just how on Earth, History and other cable networks will top the film that ranks up there with The Discovery Channel's auspicious 2008 Sinise-narrated space-race series, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.