Saturday, May 24, 2014

D-Day 360: PBS Commemorates the 70th Anniversary

D-Day would be a scandal today. A battle that cost the lives of 2,499 American soldiers would result in a paroxysm of disingenuous media outrage. Gen. Bradley would be called in front of a Senate committee. MSNBC would want to know what did FDR know and when did he know it. Errol Morris would make a documentary inviting Eisenhower to offer a tearful mea culpa—and the war in question would drag on even longer. Viewers will learn the surprisingly stark arithmetic of the Normandy Invasion in D-Day 360, directed by Ian Duncan, which airs this Tuesday as part of PBS’s special programming marking the Seventieth anniversary of the Longest Day (promo here).

Most everyone has a Saving Private Ryan understanding of how bloody and chaotic it was on the Normandy beaches. However, the first fifteen minutes of 360 will be a revelation to many. Far from proceeding according to plan, the initial hours of the invasion were an unqualified disaster. The statistics speak for themselves. Despite the barrage of ordinance expended to soften up the coastal defenses, the exact number of Germans killed and obstacles destroyed equaled exactly zero. The beaches became the killing fields intended by the architect of Germany’s coastal defense system: Erwin Rommel.

How did the Allies carry the day? They just kept throwing wave after wave of soldiers on those mine and corpse filled beaches. It was a brutal business. Through computer imaging, 360 gives viewers a sense of what the battlefield looked like and the destructive power of the German defenses. For human interest, 360 also follows the respective fates of two GI brothers, Ray and Roy Stevens, from Bedford, Virginia, the town with the highest per capita American fatalities on D-Day.

At times, 360 has wonky preoccupation with numbers, a techy fascination with technology, and a touchy feely concern for the fate of the so-called Bedford Boys. While the inconsistency of tone might be an issue for a feature documentary, the critical standard is different for a broadcast television special. What is important is that each segment further illuminates our understanding of D-Day, which they do.

There is a good deal packed into 360, much of which could alter how viewers think about D-Day. In various ways and with radically different semantics, the commentators, surviving D-Day veterans, their family members make the point freedom is never free, especially for soldiers. Recommended for general audiences who will have just celebrated Memorial Day, D-Day 360 premieres on most PBS outlets this coming Tuesday (5/27) as part of a slate of anniversary programming.