“The Vietnam War”

by Brie Stimson August 24, 2017


diversions-vietnam-warThere is no way we could avoid telling this story,” Ken Burns says of his documentary series “The Vietnam War.” Burns, who is an icon of history documentaries and has made an art form of series like “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” spent six years shooting the 18-hour series – traveling back and forth from America to Vietnam.

Longtime creative partner Lynn Novick, who is Jewish and has worked with Burns on various films, including “The War,” “Baseball” and “Prohibition,” joined him to co-direct the film.

“I think the country’s ready to have the conversation we’ve never had about the [Vietnam] war, which we really need to have,” she says.

Shot in Burns’ rich, vivid style and making expert use of archival footage and more than 25,000 photos, the 10-part series is an extended look at the war from the first troops on the ground to the last man out.

Burns says he and Novick did not set out to answer questions about Vietnam through their filming. Rather, he says the documentary is a “set of questions about what happened.”

Vietnam, which killed 16,592 American service men in 1968 alone (2,415 just in May of that year), was the fist war to be broadcast extensively into Americans’ living rooms, giving them a first-hand look at the carnage and death their sons and brothers were fighting in. The war sparked one of the greatest protest movements in the 20th century and forever changed a generation. In total, 58,193 Americans (reportedly) died in the war – their names can be found emblazoned on the seemingly never-ending Vietnam War Memorial for those who visit Washington, D.C. One high school in Philadelphia lost 54 men during the war. The Vietnamese government estimates there were 3.1 million Vietnamese military and civilian deaths during the war.

The film takes no sides and offers no conclusions. It simply gives the viewer a deeper understanding of what did happened more than 50 years ago now.

“It’s damned easy to get in a war but it’s going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself,” a dubious Lyndon Johnson said in a recorded phone conversation with his national security advisor McGeorge Bundy in May 1964.

Just like any of Burns’ and Novick’s other works, the documentary will surely become a definitive history, unrivaled in its scope, breadth, depth and capacity to move.

The filmmakers gave an abbreviated screening of the series at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre in downtown last May. While Burns joked they were going to lock the doors and make the audience watch the entire 18 hours of footage, in actuality they showed a little less than an hour’s worth of excerpts from the 10 episodes. The power of their filmmaking showed in the awed silence of the audience.

Burns says he sees Vietnam in many ways as America’s second civil war because it tore the country apart.

There is attention to detail in every moment of the film – even the score was a collaboration with the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Burns says he feels the passage of time is important for perspective on all projects – and in the half-century since troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, Americans’ (and the world’s) perspective has changed. The feelings of those who lived (and served) during Vietnam are not as clear as World War II, however. Vietnam is more complicated, less clean cut in peoples’ minds. And while Burns’ and Novick’s film may not have the answers some are looking for it will give those seeking perspective a chance to at least see what really happened. The documentary premieres on KPBS September 17 at 8 p.m.


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