Saturday, February 2, 2013

War and Remembrance (1988)

I used to love the format of the television miniseries where it took 8 to 12 hours (or more) to tell a story. Miniseries had their heyday from roughly the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. ABC was the king of churning out miniseries, starting with the exquisite Rich Man, Poor Man and followed by ratings smashes Roots, Roots: The Next Generations, The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War, and the North & South trilogy. These are all big, impressive, star-studded stories that kept viewers tuning in several nights a week until the stories were told. NBC was also successful with the miniseries game, producing such long-form spectacles as Holocaust, Centennial, Backstairs at the White House, and Shogun. CBS wasn't a major miniseries player, though it did produce the much-beloved Lonesome Dove. A quality miniseries was appointment television at its best.

But for a variety of reasons, the miniseries as a viable long-form vehicle to tell longer, self-contained stories fell out of favor. Some of it was due to inferior productions. Some of it was due to proliferation -- the networks churned out more 4 or 6 hour shows and aired them for two hours a night on consecutive nights and called them miniseries. They lost their value as spectacle (and in my opinion, a four hour miniseries is merely a two-part made-for-TV movie. But the landscape for television drama shows began to change as well. No longer were hour-long dramas limiting themselves to crafting self-contained hour-long stories. Shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Wiseguy had overlapping story arcs that played out over a variety of episodes. Prime time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty told continuing stories. The syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine played like a long novel spread out over seven seasons. FOX bent the status-quo rules many times: Arrested Development was a serial comedy and the thriller 24 told a 24 hour story in each of its eight seasons with virtually every episode ending in a cliffhanger. Then cable TV got in the act and started creating regular TV series that were beautifully written and had stories that played out over 13 episodes. Each new season, shorter than the seasons of traditional broadcast networks, would have season-long themes that fit into the overall long term story of the show. Probably the biggest example of this was HBO's The Sopranos, but there have been many like FX's The Shield or Rescue Me that provide edgy, sharply-written and well-acted content. PBS has been airing serial stories for over 40 years.

So essentially the miniseries didn't go away; it simply morphed into a variety of ways to tell stories on television without limiting the story to a fixed number of nights on conventional TV. A story can now be as long as it needs to be (or as long as ratings warrant -- there are still times when a great series is cut short for some reason). And viewers still embrace the idea of watching a continued story in a compressed time frame. Many people like to engage in "binge-watching" by watching entire seasons -- or even entire series runs -- consecutively. It's fun, for example, to watch 24 episodes of 24 over a long weekend instead of waiting 5 months for the story to unfold.

Interestingly enough, it was largely War and Remembrance which sounded the death knell for the traditional miniseries. War and Remembrance told the story of the Henrys, a military family who experienced World War II from Europe, the Pacific, and at home in the US. At the time that it was originally broadcast in 1988, it was the most expensive television production ever filmed. Filming occurred in over 750 locations worldwide; casting necessitated that there were thousands of extras with over 350 speaking parts. And as War and Remembrance was a sequel to the very highly rated The Winds of War, which explored the events leading up to America's involvement in the war at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ABC sprang for the whole cost.

With 30 broadcast hours, it was television's biggest miniseries ever. Ratings were disappointing to ABC, even though the show was successful. It was originally broadcast over two separate weeks, though they weren't consecutive weeks. There were a couple of months separating the two parts. Additionally, War and Remembrance recast several of the characters from The Winds of War which may have proved jarring to audiences. (To be fair, I would argue that most of the cast changes were for the better. The only weak replacement in my view was the casting of Hart Bochner as Byron Henry, the youngest Henry son. He replaced the much more charismatic and intense -- albeit older --Jan-Michael Vincent.)

By any standard though, the production of War and Remembrance was a gigantic undertaking, and the results were impressive. War and Remembrance was strongest in its story threads involving the plight of Byron's wife Natalie, his son Lewis, and Natalie's uncle Aaron Jastrow.  Their struggle  against their treatment as Jews who eventually wind up at the Auschwitz death camp is poignant and heartbreaking.. The scenes involving the maniacal Adolf Hitler make for fascinating, educational, and troubling viewing. I also enjoyed scenes involving FDR, Truman, Churchill, or Eisenhower.

Dramatically speaking, the story of the rest of the Henrys was much less compelling than it was in The Winds of War. It wasn't fatal to the miniseries, however, because they had less to do than in the earlier, shorter series. Robert Mitchum returned as family patriarch Victor "Pug" Henry, and though he was a little long-in-the-tooth, he brought important gravitas and screen presence to the show. Jane Seymour was quite affecting as Natalie Jastrow Henry who had two unwavering goals -- to protect her son Lewis and to help her uncle Aaron get out of Europe. Polly Bergen's performance as Pug's first wife Rhoda was usually grating, but then Rhoda is a grating character. She has a long scene in the last part with Victoria Tennant, who plays Pug's second wife Pamela Tudsbury. The actresses are remarkable here. Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Richard Dysart as Truman, Steven Berkoff as Hitler, and Robert Hardy as Churchill were excellent.

The greatest performance in the miniseries, however, is John Gielgud's soul-stirring performance as Aaron Jastrow. He replaced John Houseman from The Winds of War, and his performance is much less sickly than Houseman's was. Gielgud is able to beautifully demonstrate the discovery of Aaron's faith, and his final scenes of horror at Auschwitz are among the most powerful that I have ever seen performed in any medium. The great acting by Gielgud makes Aaron Jastrow a great character for the ages.

Despite its flaws, we will never see the likes of War and Remembrance again. Its huge scope was important to be able to look at World War II from all the angles. The value of this miniseries may be more as a history lesson than as a dramatic masterwork.  And that's fine; certainly there is nothing else like it being produced today.  It's a brave and ambitious project that always succeeds -- and sometimes brilliantly.  Grade: A-.

Fun fact: War and Remembrance includes the story about the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.  This story was also the basis of the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie.

I watched War and Remembrance on DVD, finishing on January 28, 2013.

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