The World Wars unapologetically subscribes to the Great Man theory of history, the view that events are shaped by the rare genius, overwhelming charisma, and unbending will of select individuals. History Channel’s three-night, documentary miniseries reduces the two World Wars—conflicts that touched billions of lives and left as many as 100 million people dead—to the story of about a dozen pivotal figures, who are brought to life through extensive reenactments. As far as this documentary is concerned, Adolf Hitler might as well have ruled the Third Reich with the help of random people he brought in off the street; not a single other Nazi official is even mentioned by name. Either a battle was won by Douglas MacArthur or George S. Patton, or it isn’t worth mentioning. But the reason that the Great Man theory has been long since been discredited is that it ignores the larger sociocultural forces and influences that shape the decisions not just of history’s great leaders but also of its unchronicled, anonymous masses. Worse still, the documentary’s focus on its “heroes” and “tyrants” carries with it an irresistible urge to mythologize. This is the kind of historical documentary that opens with an origin story for Hitler’s mustache.
It’s not that this biographical approach to history is inherently unworkable; indeed, one of the most effective ways to make such incomprehensibly vast conflicts relatable to a modern audience is to share the stories of a cross-section of those who lived through it. In exploring the Great War, one might well focus on a messenger in the Germany army, an ambitious British politician, an American colonel fascinated by the possibilities of mechanized warfare, and an Italian-journalist-turned-expert-sharpshooter. But the audience is never allowed to forget that these individuals will someday become the Adolf Hitler, the Winston Churchill, the George S. Patton, and the Benito Mussolini. Most troublingly, The World Wars’ insistence on following the lives of those who ended up running countries or commanding armies renders half of those affected by the World Wars effectively invisible. The most significant woman featured is a ballet dancer giving a private performance for Joseph Stalin; inexplicably, the vast roster of historians and political figures interviewed is exclusively male.
Beyond this critical, frankly baffling failing, The World Wars makes a mistake that recalls the History Channel of old: It’s inordinately interested in Hitler. Theoretically, The World Wars could work if it traced the parallel and ultimately convergent paths of the various Allied and Axis leaders, but historical threads are only examined if they directly impact Nazi Germany. Stalin’s brutal, genocidal rise to power in the Soviet Union is treated as a mere parenthetical when he is hastily reintroduced just in time to sign the non-aggression pact with Germany; both Stalin and Mussolini’s crimes are largely discussed in terms of how they helped inspire Hitler’s subsequent atrocities. The result is a documentary about Hitler masquerading as a documentary about World War II’s great men masquerading as a documentary about 30 years of European history.
What keeps The World Wars from being a total loss is that it does often manage to be goofily entertaining. This is history as a big, slick action blockbuster—making Avengers co-star Jeremy Renner a natural choice to deliver the bombastic narration—with more than a hint of cheese; the opening credits feature introductions for Hitler, Churchill, and their contemporaries that would feel right at home in an Expendables movie, or possibly Wrestlemania. The World Wars isn’t rigorous enough to appeal to experts, but it’s breezily entertaining for those who have a decent interest in history but only know this period’s broadest outlines. The World Wars loves its foreshadowing and dramatic irony, which will be most effective for those viewers who are familiar with terms like “Gallipoli,” “the Sudetenland,” or “Midway,” but don’t know all the details surrounding their significance—and who are willing to occasionally check outside sources when the storytelling gets a little too slick for its own good.
But this impulse for larger-than-life storytelling does mean that The World Wars is terminally superficial. Hitler’s shift toward genocidal dictator is presented as a sudden, unexplained descent into evil, suggesting less a human reaction—sane or insane—and more the genesis of a supervillain. The miniseries presents some of the more fascinating but disputed stories about its protagonists as though they were unambiguously true, and it simplifies the stories of large social movements to play up the roles of its chosen subjects. The documentary stumbles most when it examines crucial events that don’t directly involve leaders or generals. The Holocaust is effectively rendered a footnote, something discussed primarily in terms of Hitler’s opaque philosophies and Patton’s horrified reactions.
Still, the most curious aspect of The World Wars lies in its choice of interviewees. Beyond the standard assortment of respectable historians, the miniseries brings in contemporary politicians and generals to comment on their predecessors. While it’s just vaguely pointless to bring in former British Prime Minister John Major to offer banal platitudes about Churchill or General Stanley McChrystal to do the same for Douglas MacArthur, the miniseries gets into much murkier territory with its use of key figures from the Bush administration. It’s a special kind of unnerving to watch Dick Cheney dispassionately analyze whether Roosevelt could have intervened in Europe earlier despite resistance from the American public and the lack of a clear justification for war. The issue here isn’t even primarily political, but rather that the mere presence of Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld overwhelms The World Wars’ more immediate goals; these figures are ill-suited to help tell this story when their every sentence evokes unacknowledged parallels with their own, deeply controversial wartime experiences. But then, this miniseries is less history than it is modern mythology, so it’s unsurprising that it casts the same uncritical eye on its interviewees that it does on its subjects; all involved are implicitly granted great-men status, which means their actions are to be recounted, not questioned.