The film focuses on World War II in a "bottom up" fashion through the lenses of four "quintessentially American towns":Luverne, Minnesota
The film recounts the experiences of a number of individuals from these communities as they move through the war in the Pacific, African and European theaters, and focuses on the effect of the war on them, their families and their communities.
A number of notable actors including Adam Arkin, Tom Hanks, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Bobby Cannavale and Eli Wallach are heard as voice actors reading contemporary newspaper articles, telegrams, letters from the front, etc. Notable persons including Daniel Inouye, Sidney Phillips, Joe Medicine Crow and Paul Fussell were interviewed.
The full documentary runs 14 hours and was broadcast in seven parts on PBS over two weeks, starting on Sunday, September 23, 2007 and continuing four nights the first week and three nights the second week, from 8 to 10 p.m. (8 to 10:30 p.m. on three nights). The documentary was provided to PBS affiliates in two versions: One with profanity generally prohibited by FCC regulations (including explanations of the acronyms FUBAR and SNAFU) and one without the expletives.
Each episode begins with the introduction:
The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting.
This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.
In some countries, notably Australia, Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany, The War was released as a 14-episode series. The region 4 DVD release of The War splits the series into 14 episodes, but notes that it is "a seven-part documentary".
Time magazine's James Poniewozik named the series one of the Top 10 New TV Series of 2007, ranking it at no. 9.
The War came under fire after previews during the editing process indicated no mention of the contributions of Hispanics to the war effort, whose representation in the war itself is estimated at up to half a million people; complaints followed later as to omissions of Hispanic and Native American contributions and those of women in uniform. Originally the premiere was scheduled for September 16, 2007; the fact that this date is both Mexican Independence Day and the start of U.S. observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month drew additional fire from its detractors, and the initial airdate was later moved to September 23, 2007, with no comment from PBS.
Although at first the dispute seemed to be settled with the inclusion of additional footage to address the omission, in subsequent weeks, groups began to question conflicting reports from Burns and PBS as to whether the additional footage would be provided as supplementary material or would be integrated into the overall program. Burns initially insisted that re-editing the film was out of the question, with PBS defending that decision on the basis of artistic freedom. Over the months of May and June, as of mid-July, 2007, estimates put out by Burns suggested that additional footage showing interviews with two Hispanics and one Native American would be added to the series, for a total of 28 minutes additional footage to the 14 hours the program was originally planned to cover; the additional footage would air at the conclusion of the selected episodes, but before each episode's final credits.
News outlets began to report as of July 11 that the additional content had not been included in materials made available for preview by television writers and critics, prompting renewed discussion and speculation as to the eventual outcome of the debate.