Opinion writer

After each episode of “The Vietnam War” airs, our new podcast — “The American War” — will break down the major themes and questions raised. We’ll talk to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and others involved with the documentary for a new perspective on how the film was made and what it all means.

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Here’s our conversation about Episode 6, “Things Fall Apart” (January 1968-July 1968).” The transcript has been edited for readability. Note: This episode contains adult language.

For most of this podcast, we’ve talked about the choices Ken Burns and Lynn Novick made, and the big issues they grappled with as they made their documentary.

But sometimes it takes a small thing to capture a very big idea. And so today, we’re going to talk about a photograph.

It’s a picture I think a lot of you have probably seen already. It was taken on a city street in Saigon.

On the left, a man in a vest and shirt with the sleeves rolled up has extended his right arm. He’s holding a revolver. In fact, he’s just fired it.

And to the right, we see the man who’s just been shot. He’s skinny, and he wears a plaid shirt and shorts. His face is tensed against the blow, but it’s too late; you can see his temple bulging as the bullet rips through it.

The man with the gun was Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese chief of National Police. The man he killed was Nguyen Van Lem, a member of the National Liberation Front who had been accused of murdering an entire South Vietnamese family.

Eddie Adams, a photographer for the Associated Press, captured their confrontation during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, and it’s become justly one of the most famous pictures taken during the Vietnam War.

But Adams wasn’t the only journalist there that day. Vo Suu, a Vietnamese cameraman for NBC, was also present. And in the sixth episode of “The Vietnam War,” we got to see the that footage he shot. And for me, it changed everything I thought I knew about that iconic, terrible moment.

I talked to Burns about that footage.

South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, executes suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street in 1968, early in the Tet Offensive. (Eddie Adams/AP)

Q: So Ken, obviously there’s more to the Tet Offensive than one act of violence or one picture, but one of the things I found so striking about this episode was the footage of Nguyen Van Lem being executed by General Loan on a public street in Saigon.

It seems like that moment, which became a very famous still photo, was a major turning point for a lot of your sources as well. There are so many iconic still photos from the Vietnam era. And one thing you do often in this movie is show the audience video that supplements those images. Are there things you’re trying to get them to see by putting both of those kinds of images onscreen and showing them these scenes in two ways?

KEN BURNS: You know, the Eddie Adams photograph is in a class by itself. It’s the only moment in the film in which we get truly meta, and stop and dissect the photograph, look at the contact sheet.

It’s very interesting that you bring it up, because I’ve spent my life celebrating the sort of DNA that a single still photograph is about. But in one case the footage has its own primacy. While Eddie Adams’s photograph was on the front page of every newspaper, it seems, across the world as well as the country, and had profound influence on turning people’s opinions about the war, it is the footage that in some ways has the power to see the cavalierness with which Loan steps up to him and kills him. The drinking of the beer afterwards.

But more importantly, the way Lem falls. The way the blood gushes up 8 or 10 or 12 inches from his head for a moment. The way a pool of blood — and NBC, to their credit, insists that we only use exactly what was being shown. No more, and more importantly no less for those of us uncomfortable by that sort of stuff.

We had an internal screening of this episode a few years ago and we had at that point a young intern named Frank, and Frank came down, as is the case in every screening everybody has a chance to say something, and he was clearly upset and he said: I’ve grown up with violent images. I’ve watched TV shows and movies and comic books and graphic novels, and mostly the video games that young boys of his age have played all their lives, violent video games that as a father of a daughter I thank God everyday that they have not had that.

And he said, “But that guy’s really dead,” and he started to cry.

And at that point I just sort of said, “This is a real film we’re making.” We all nodded and comforted him and said, “Yes, he is dead,” and I just thought, as we wring our hands with safe arguments without any empirical data that our kids are different and they’re numbed and enured, that somehow that footage in that photograph got through to one kid. And I’ve seen it in other places, not as profoundly as our Frank, but it made a big difference.

Q: I think for me, I mean you talked about the beer and the way he falls. But the thing that has always stayed with me is the looseness of the general’s wrist as he’s waving the revolver around.

BURNS: That’s what I meant by cavalier. It’s just so run-of-the-mill, as if the extinguishing — and, look, you’re in the military, that’s your job. But just the cavalierness of a surrendered prisoner or a captured prisoner or whatever it is, it’s a spy and obviously he’s lost comrades in this. But there’s no justification for that moment in any rational scenario — any humane scenario, is probably the better way to describe it. And so what it becomes is an abhorrent mirror to the possibilities in ourselves.

This episode is called “Things Fall Apart” and it has to do with the William Butler Yeats poem that Robert Kennedy cites in an editorial that he writes that year opposing the war in no uncertain terms in the New York Times. But it’s also about what the title of the next episode is about: the veneer of civilization.

This is how close we are. I always feel that all of these images here are mirrors. They ask us — and I think one of the gifts of filmmaking is that it permits us to order and sequence images to remind us of not what happens but also what we are capable of ourselves.

And so I don’t want just Frank’s realization that he’s dead. Implicit behind that is our own culpability in what’s taking place.

And look, murder and war, they’re synonymous. But there’s something about that moment, that photograph and that footage, that are the — it’s the heart of darkness of the whole story.

Q: So you mentioned the primacy of the still photograph in your work a minute ago, and one thing I learned when I was reading more about this photograph is that Adams came to believe that it didn’t tell the whole story. And even the video doesn’t tell the whole story in that Nguyen was accused of murdering a family of, I think, six people. And so, still photography plays an incredibly important role in your work — do you ever feel distrustful of the photos?

BURNS: All the time. Of course. You know, the subjectivity of everything is always there. Let’s just go back one episode to Musgrave’s admission that they never took a prisoner.

He said, “We did not torture and we did not mutilate,” which is sometimes what they found when they went back after a battle when they couldn’t bring back all their wounded and found mutilation. But he said, “If you came in our hands, you’re just one sorry f–––––,” which means there took place an off-camera execution exactly the same as Lem’s, it’s just not in front of a camera. And does that make it any less real?

Q: Do you think that something like that where you have both the photo and the video encourages audiences to think a little bit more critically about an image like that? I mean, it’s not as if the video debunks it, but …

BURNS: No, I think that’s exactly right.

I’ve always felt that the still photograph gave dimension to something that was essentially one dimensional, which is footage — or two dimensional. You could just describe what was going on, and that’s what it was good for. The photograph allows you to arrest things. And that’s what happens.

If you look at the first moment the narrator talks in our film, it’s the first time you’re seeing still photographs, right? Everything before has been live cinematography or footage, right?. And for the very first time, you’re seeing still photographs and they will be for the entire introductory narration that delivers you to Bao Ninh, our North Vietnamese man who ends the introduction.

So yeah, they’re hugely important. But in some way I think somehow this footage in combination, just like with Kim Phuc and still photographs that Nick Ut took of her running down the street naked, the footage and the photograph go hand in hand. And in terms of this long-held desire to kind of wake these long-gone moments up, they work in concert pretty well for our understanding of it.

I guess the third image would be the girl leaning over her friend who has just been murdered at Kent State. That’s sort of the third of the famous iconic images that really transformed our understanding of the war. And even then what I had never known until I got to this project is that she’s wearing a shirt that says “slave” on it. Just says “slave.”

And the way the contrast of a newspaper and subsequently printings — nobody had dug that out. And if you go back and look, her shirt says “slave.”

Which we are all, James Baldwin told me in “The Statue of Liberty,” slaves to something — money or hating Jews or whatever it is.

Q: Well, it’s interesting. When I was writing the questions for this conversation, I think I was in a place where I was feeling a little skeptical of still photography. And then … I don’t know if you saw the photo that Ryan Kelly, a local news photographer, took in Charlottesville of the car plowing into the crowd of people. But I saw it and the first thing I thought of was Eddie Adams.

BURNS: I agree. I agree completely.

And we’re always there. And it’s something — you know, we do like the footage of the truck barreling down the boulevard in Nice toward the intended victims. We’re drawn to that. To the footage of this or that or the other thing. But it’s often, in the end, the thing that remains is that arrested still photograph that speaks a thousand words that we thought maybe in this devalued age it didn’t anymore.

If the Vietnam War reminds us all over again how powerful a single still photo can be, it also can be overwhelming to sort through all the photography that came out of the conflict. So why does this picture stick with us?

I’ve talked about how that picture affected me, but I wanted to know what it meant to the filmmakers. So I asked co-director Lynn Novick why this picture lingered with her, what it took to get Vo Suu’s footage and how they decided to use it in the film.

Q: So by this time in the war, Americans had already seen graphic images and disturbing footage out of Vietnam, including Morley Safer’s CBS broadcast from Cam Ne. Other than the fact that it’s such an amazing photograph and such an amazing piece of photographic serendipity, why do you think this photograph made such a strong impression on Americans?

LYNN NOVICK: If you think about it, you see photographs of people who have been killed and you see people who have been wounded. And you see people that are being menaced, threatened maybe, with a gun pointed at them or a bayonet at their stomach or something like that. But it’s very rare to see a photograph of a person who was in the act of dying right that moment. There’s not a lot of pictures like that that I can think of, if any. So it’s the urgency of that moment being frozen that is so indelible. And I think it invites the viewer to step into that moment in time.

It’s easy to distance yourself from a dead body. Although you shouldn’t, because one should think about who was that person and what happened to them and how did they die. Out of respect we should never not think about those questions of the humanity of a corpse. But here’s a living person who’s dying in that moment. So they’re not dead yet, so you can’t just walk away. You can’t just look away. I think that’s part of it.

And then you’re looking at the person who’s murdering them. So you’re seeing an act happening. And again, if you see a corpse or you see someone wounded, you don’t see the person who shot that person usually right there. It’s a little drama of the war that’s happening while you’re looking at it and it’s frozen for all time. Extraordinarily powerful.

Q: When did you first learn that there was video footage instead of just a still photograph?

NOVICK: I first understood about the video footage from seeing “Hearts and Minds.” I remember being completely shocked.

Q: What was the difference between seeing the still photo and watching the video? I mean, I know it’s shocking, but beyond that?

NOVICK: I think that the footage goes by quickly. It only lasts as many seconds as it lasts, and then some other image comes along or then it’s over, and you don’t have to keep looking at it. So it’s horrific in that it’s in color and the blood is red and you hear the sound of that — in our case we’ve added sound to it. So it’s real in a way that’s gruesome and deeply disturbing. And how many of us, other than this, have really seen someone being killed right in front of our eyes? And then lying there dead in the blood spurting out of his head. I mean, it’s unimaginably grotesque, but it’s over and then you can go look at something else or not. But the photograph doesn’t go away. It just stays there. And so, I think you have a chance to really contemplate what’s happening and what happened before and what’s happening in that moment, what’s going to happen after, in a different way because it’s a still photograph. And there’s no better or worse, it’s just, they’re different.

Q: Now, I know NBC has been very cautious with licensing this footage over the past 49 years, so how did you persuade them to allow you to use it in the film?

NOVICK: Really all the credit for that goes to producer Sarah Botstein.

We were able to explain to them that it was important to us to include this footage, because it was shown on television and it did play a part in Americans’ understanding of the war. And we would not put it in some violent montage of horrors of the war. It would be shown in context: What happened? Why? Who was there? What was its effect? What was actually shown on television? How does it relate to the photograph? It would be in the larger context of the whole history of the war, and that we would treat it with the respect and authenticity that it deserved.

And at this meeting that we had, the woman who’s in charge of all the licensing for NBC came and she said that she’d never seen the footage used in that way. And they were really pleased that it was in the film, and it belongs here because it’s an extraordinarily important moment, and people need to know what happened. But they’ve been reluctant, because they don’t want to be just sort of cheapened and sensationalized.

Q: I spent some time with you while you were editing the movie, which was just fascinating to see. And part of what was really interesting about that process was seeing you leave enough space for people to just react to or absorb what they had just seen. Whether it was adding three frames of black here, or four there. For this footage in particular, what did you take into consideration about how the audience would react and what you needed to give them in terms of trying to process?

NOVICK: What we really tried to do first was to find out what exactly was shown on television, because we did want to show our audience what the American public actually saw.

And so we wanted to cut off the footage after Lem is shot and lying on the ground and the blood spurting. The camera rolls for quite a long time and the footage goes on, but we didn’t want to keep it going more than what the public actually saw. And that required Mike Welt, our producer, to spend some time going back and forth with NBC to try to find out exactly how long that scene lasted in the broadcast. And so that’s how much time we show of it, and then we have to cut to black and you have to think about it.

And that’s just a very intuitive process. We watch it over and over again ourselves, and we bring people in to see it and we sort of gauge people’s reactions who don’t know anything about it or don’t know what to expect. You know, it’s really a trial and error. Add a little bit of black, take a little bit out. What do we do with the sound? Does it kind of carve out or does it kind of drop out? How do we make a transition so that you can take a breath?

I don’t know, I hope we got it right. It’s hard to know, because it’s just so gruesome and hard to look at. You have to let people live in that for a little bit and then give them permission to say “We’re going to move on now to something else.”

Eddie Adams’s photo is one of those pictures that stays with you forever. I know it’s stayed with me since I’ve seen it.

And Burns and Novick have a point. It says a lot not only that this execution happened at all, but that the people who did it were comfortable doing it in front of a photographer and a cameraman.

Seeing Loan’s body language in the footage, we realize that this killing wasn’t just public; it was carried out casually. That’s a hard thing to understand, but it was at least one reality of the war in Vietnam.

And General Loan wasn’t the only person who crossed a line like this. One of the most striking things about the Vietnam War is the frank way the people in it talk about war crimes. Even ones that have long been taboo in Vietnam.

For more on “The Vietnam War”: