If there's one thing to be said about the History Channel, it's that they have no shortage of variety in their programming. At one time, it almost seemed that the channel was ready to be re-branded the WWII Network due to a cavalcade of conflict content. A lot of the programs regarding war make up multi-episode series' while others are merely special topics of longer running series that cover a more broad scope. When viewed on the network itself, I can't recall ever being disappointed with the time I spent watching; unfortunately, the network's attempt to collect and distribute a comprehensive, 14 disc look at "America at War" is a mixed-bag at best.
"The Revolution" (Discs 1, 2, 3 and 4)
The set starts out right with its coverage of the American Revolution. I had a previous opportunity to review an extremely comprehensive look at the birth of our nation in the Founding of America Megaset which highlighted the gamut of programs in the History Channel library focused on the Revolutionary War. I found "The Revolution" series to be the best of the bunch, and its inclusion here is a solid choice. The series takes an in-depth look at the war from stem to stern, by engaging the viewer with historian commentary and well-done re-enactment footage. It's a great start for anyone interested in this time period, and should also please history buffs as well.
"The Alamo" (Disc 5)
The viewer gets two programs to choose from on this disc, one which comes from a series called "The Real West," and the other a veiled promotional tie-in for "The Alamo" film that provided marginal entertainment at the box office several years earlier. These programs are both entertaining and manage to cover decent ground, but the commercialization aspect doesn't sit well with me. As the subject itself is limited in scope compared to other conflicts in the set, there will be some overlap in material presented.
"The Civil War" (Disc 6)
Four episodes of "Civil War Combat" provide this set's look at one of our nation's darker chapters. The episodes themselves are engaging and it was nice to focus on specific battles, but in terms of a broad overview of the war itself, this disc doesn't bring the goods. While I was not expecting something in the league of Ken Burns' epic masterpiece on the war, I definitely expect some more thought in content selection.
"World War I" (Disc 7)
The first great conflict of the 20th century gets coverage from two separate programs. The production felt inferior compared to "The Revolution" and even the Alamo disc, but the content was solid. I definitely feel though, that this important conflict was not given the justice it deserved, and strongly feel an additional disc should have been covered.
"World War II" (Disc 8 and 9)
World War II gets coverage from a previous min-series entitled "The Lasts Days of WWII." The program itself does a great job of covering specific events, but like the Civil War and WWI discs fails to adequately look at the war as a whole. This complaint may sound like a broken record, but unfortunately, it's an honest complaint, especially considering the selling point of the set itself.
"The Korean War" (Disc 10)
The trend of random one-off programs rears its head again as the Korean War gets a quartet of well produced programs that again, fail to give, even a brief, but mostly complete look at the war.
"The Vietnam War"(Disc 11)
The series "On the Frontlines" makes up the set's coverage of the Vietnam War. The series is compelling in its presentation of important battles as well as the closing act of the war. My frustration with missing pieces was not as great here, since I was extremely drawn into the events covered, but it still must be noted that this is far from a complete story
"The Gulf War" (Disc 12)
Three episodes of the series "Operation Desert Storm" give a good rundown of our nation's first foray into direct conflict with the Middle East. The first two episodes of the series nicely cover the two fronts of this war (air and land) and the viewer gets to see how drastically our fighting tactics and technology had leaped since the Vietnam War.
"The Iraq War"(Disc 13 and 14)
Five episodes from a series titled "One Year Later" take a look at the US progress in Iraq. Considering the title of the programs, it is obvious this isn't the most updated look at this controversial conflict, but for the time frame it covers, it is very comprehensive. I personally wasn't as interested in these programs despite their quality, as I am still burnt-out out from having actually lived through this conflict as it happened and seen it unfold nightly on the news. That aside, these discs are a solid conclusion to the set
The frequent complaint you will find with these discs are they don't provide an adequate, overall view of many of the conflicts covered. Granted there are complete sets dedicated to these individual wars, but for a set boasting the title "America at War," this feels like a hastily produced collection with a few "greatest hits" (The Revolutionary War, Gulf War and Iraq War), but mostly random entries that are good for what they are, but don't represent these conflicts as a whole. The biggest offenders are the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. I enjoyed all these programs, but feel these discs would be much more suited for box sets focusing on these wars individually. Here they merely give viewers a sampler of the greater conflict.
The video quality of this set varies. Discs 5-14 are all presented in their original full-frame presentations, with some programs showing noticeable digital defects, likely stemming from transfer from tape. "The Revolution" set is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and next to the "Iraq War" discs is the best looking overall. The picture quality here isn't going to wow anyone, but it's far from being a hindrance to the enjoyability of the programs. One special exception is the bonus program on disc 13, which is presented in a poorly framed, faux widescreen format.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo presentation reproduces crisp clear sound with no frills. Dialogue is never muddled, but there's nothing here in terms of sound design that will wow you.
There are four bonus episodes on the final three discs of this set that further enhance the look at the conflicts they cover. The Gulf War gets an episode of "Weapons at War" that provides a fascinating look at smart bombs, while The Iraq War gives us looks at reporting in "Eyewitness in Iraq," "US Weapons Against Iraq" and "Insurgency and Counterinsurgency."
"America at War" is book ended with two stellar looks at two very different conflicts, but in-between, it largely fails to deliver the goods in terms of comprehensive content. As I've stated before, these programs are all well made, but leave me as a viewer wanting more. At best this set is a nice sampler platter (albeit 38+ hours worth of samples), but most interested parties would be best served by searching out individual comprehensive sets. To try and sum up WWII in two discs or the Vietnam War in one is a travesty, no matter how good the programs do their job at covering a limited scope. Skip It.