Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s astounding and sobering 10-episode PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” (airing Sunday through Sept. 28 on PBS stations) took a decade to research, film, edit and ultimately perfect. It clocks in at 18 hours — a length as daunting as its subject, yet worth every single minute of your time. I’ll go so far as to call it required viewing, before you watch anything else on TV that will come (and probably go) this fall season, especially all those new fictional dramas that celebrate special-ops teams quietly taking out America’s terrorist enemies with little muss and no fuss.
As an account of both the war and its political and cultural legacies, “The Vietnam War” is about as complete and evenhanded as it could possibly get, which, of course, means it won’t please everyone. There’s also the ongoing problem of our corroded attention spans and increasing inability to separate fact from opinions or lies. This makes “The Vietnam War” even more valuable right now. Do your best to stay with it — an episode here, another episode later — and open both your heart and your mind. This is the real stuff.
Even now, as we still elect leaders who are old enough to need to explain their whereabouts in the Vietnam years (as a young man, President Trump reportedly received multiple deferments, including one for bone spurs in one of his feet), the subject remains an argumentative, open fissure in American society — a “war begun in secrecy [in the 1940s],” intones the film’s narrator, Peter Coyote. “It ended 30 years later in failure, witnessed by the entire world.” The nation’s relationship to the war is “like living in a family with an alcoholic father,” observes Marine veteran Karl Marlantes.
Although our preferred means for ripping into one another these days lean heavily on the Civil War (the subject of Burns’s 1990 documentary, which remains his defining masterpiece), a great deal of our national anxiety in 2017 follows a straight line from the 1960s and early ’70s. Burns and Novick’s film doesn’t come out and say so in a blunt way, but you’d be a fool not to pick up on the echoes.
The Vietnam War is never truly over (and at times it will feel to a viewer like “The Vietnam War” is never over, either), but, as Bao Ninh, a writer who fought for the communist North Vietnamese army, thoughtfully observes in the film’s opening moments: “It has been 40 years. . . . In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”
In that spirit, “The Vietnam War” is a mighty attempt to get one’s arms around the whole hideous, tangled history of it — perhaps with a sense that it can be finished, or at least converted to the past, despite its ability to cling to the present.
The experience of watching “The Vietnam War” includes terror, horror, disbelief, discovery, disgust, marvel, pride, ambivalence and tears. You’ll lose count of how many times you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor — even when the facts ring vaguely familiar.
“We thought we were the exceptions to history — the Americans,” says journalist Neil Sheehan, whose 1971 reporting for the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers helped a nation comprehend the decades of deception and delusion that fed the war. “History didn’t apply to us. We could never fight a bad war, we could never represent the wrong cause — we were Americans. [Vietnam] proved that we were not an exception to history.”
Some viewers will remember the war like it was yesterday. Those of us who came later absorbed its many lasting lessons, sounds and images: Eddie Adams’s photo of South Vietnam’s national police chief shooting a Viet Cong captain point-blank in the head; Nick Ut’s photo of the naked girl burned by Napalm running down a paved road in search of relief; American teenager Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a Kent State student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. Young or old, viewers will probably find a wealth of new insight here, as well as the thing Burns, Novick and their team have always done best: context.
What’s most striking — immediately and throughout — is the filmmakers’ determination to find people and stories that illustrate the war from both sides. There are numerous, deeply personal interviews with men and women who fought in the North Vietnamese army or the Viet Cong, those who fought in South Vietnamese forces, and other citizens. Their memories and humanity supply a missing piece in our usual narrative of the war — even in upsetting moments, such as when Northern veterans gloat about how “tall and slow” American soldiers were and how easy they were to track and kill. (They left trails of cigarette butts everywhere, one North Vietnamese veteran explains in Episode 5. They were easy to pick off in the field because of their sworn duty not to leave behind their wounded or dead, observes another.)
If, like me, your basic working knowledge of the Vietnam War is largely based on American cinema (“Apocalypse Now,” “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” etc.), then the actual North and South Vietnamese people have always been nameless extras playing the enemy or suspicious bystanders, referred to by U.S. soldiers only by nicknames and slurs. That sort of dehumanizing was an essential experience for American soldiers.
“My hatred for them was pure. Pure,” recalls John Musgrave, a Marine who was stationed close to the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam gruesomely nicknamed the Dead Marine Zone. “I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, ‘I will never kill another human being as long as I’m in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I’ll wax as many dinks as I can find. I’ll smoke as many zips as I can find — but I ain’t gonna kill anybody. You know, turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101.”
That’s not all we hear from Musgrave, however. Although most people think of the camera panning across old photographs when someone says “the Ken Burns style,” what most distinguishes his films is a commitment to find the half-dozen or so small stories that speak to the epic quality of history, whether tracing an Upstate New York family who lost their son and brother, Army Pfc. Denton “Mogie” Crocker Jr., in 1966, up to the moment in the final episode when his kid sister, Carol, first visited Maya Lin’s effective Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; or in the story of Viet Cong soldier Nguyen Thanh Tung, who lost all eight of her brothers in the war, beginning in the 1950s, and then lost both her sons in ongoing skirmishes in 1975.
And though PBS and the filmmakers hinted that “The Vietnam War” would be a noticeable departure in form and format, it’s somehow a relief to see that it’s not. There are appropriate stylistic touches that express a ’60s-level anxiety along with impressive contrasts in imagery. There is ample use of the endless (if stomach-turning) hours of taped Oval Office phone calls from the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon years in which both presidents played cynically and callously with the lives of thousands.
The Vietnam War era comes with its own ready-made soundtrack of rock, pop and soul hits of the day — the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” has a way of appearing just where you think it might — but to this, Burns and Novick have smartly added the sounds of Vietnamese folk songs by the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma, as well as an unsettlingly memorable score from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his collaborator, Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross’s music lends “The Vietnam War” a needed, metallic taste of tension and raw nerves.
We follow John Musgrave from his idealistic youth and decision to volunteer in the Marines and fight in Vietnam and through his harrowing duty. Then we follow him home, down into a pit of despair, and continue, in later episodes about the protest movement, as he begins to view the war differently and joins other veterans who toss their medals in protest onto the Capitol steps. What Burns and Novick prove yet again is the catharsis that can be found in telling our stories to one another — and the absolute value in getting these stories right.
The Vietnam War (10 episodes; 18 hours) begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, on PBS stations and continues nightly through Thursday, Sept. 21. Episodes 6-10 will air Sept. 24-28.