TV Review: Ken Burns’ Documentary ‘The Vietnam War’

'Vietnam War' Review: Ken Burns Documentary

The legendary documentarian returns to the saga of an American war with an 18-hour epic on the decades of violence in Vietnam

Watching a Ken Burns documentary is the closest you can get, on television, to reading an American history textbook. If nothing else, there’s the length: Archival materials, one-on-one interviews, and illustrated maps combine to make hours of material. But there’s also the patiently didactic pacing, and the neatly consecutive installments, titled like chapter headings. And while other documentarians opt for subjects that illuminate a subculture, profile an individual, or hone in on a little-known story to bring its details to a wider audience, Burns’ approach is the opposite: breadth. Eleven hours on the Civil War; 12 hours on the national parks; 14 hours on the Roosevelts — all characterized by an earnest patriotism that goes hand in hand with his longstanding partnership with public television.

Burns’ documentaries seek to tell the whole truth, which is a high bar in general, and very high indeed in the particular case of “The Vietnam War.” That war — a blight on our collective consciousness, an embarrassing chapter in history, and an enduring nightmare for those who survived it — is such a morass that, like the fable of the blind mice describing an elephant, most documentarians attempt to cover just one part of it. Not Burns. “The Vietnam War,” a decade in the making, will air 18 hours in 10 parts on PBS. At that length — almost half of an entire work week — “The Vietnam War” is Burns’ longest endeavor, tied with his 1994 series “Baseball.” It is also the longest major work on the Vietnam War — “Vietnam: A Television History,” the 1983 series from American Experience, clocked in at just 11 hours.

And yet it seems, at times, that Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick could have produced twice as many episodes and still not found a way to answering the docuseries’ central question: Why did this awful thing happen — and keep happening, even when so many decisionmakers knew better? “The Vietnam War” is a remarkably blameless history, but it is also a damning one. In the four installments reviewed, Burns, Novick, and writer Geoffrey C. Ward lay out a political history of America’s involvement in Vietnam in which the opportunities to turn back and prevent more needless death are enumerated over and over again. At the same time, and most powerfully, “The Vietnam War” centers one-on-one interviews with anti-war protestors, Pentagon personnel, bereaved families, and of course veterans — both American and Vietnamese. The strength of “The Vietnam War” comes from these 80-odd interviewees, who offer a glimpse into the psyches of people on all sides of the conflict — from reluctant American draftees to enthusiastic North Vietnamese recruits. What is most striking is how their emotions about the war, even now, seem to be just under the surface of their day-to-day lives. Veteran John Musgrave’s voice cracks, in the first episode, as he describes trying to explain to his children why daddy still needs a nightlight.

At times, the length of “The Vietnam War” detracts from its appeal. Even with the headings, it can be hard to keep the years and offensives straight. Then again, disorientation in the midst of multiple national histories and conflicting personal agendas is, in a nutshell, the experience of the Vietnam War. This sense of immersive confusion is heightened by the soundscape of “The Vietnam War,” which is easily its strongest technical element. The footage is grainy, but the sound of automatic gunfire rapping out in bursts is crystal clear — and time and again, the veterans describe not the sights but the sounds, whether that is far-off artillery, radio static, or waiting in terror for the telltale sound of gunshots. Interspersed with this is an original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — a fittingly hyper-masculine set of tracks — as well as arrangements of Vietnamese folk music from Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

One could almost just listen to “The Vietnam War”; the visuals are not nearly as adventurous or innovative. It’s understandable: The footage from the war is not exactly low-quality, but it can’t compare to how sophisticated visual effects have become. But at the same time, “The Vietnam War” could have offered some present-day visuals as a way of providing much needed context — such as a demonstration of how devastating napalm and Agent Orange are, or a breakdown of the weaponry and uniforms available to both sides. Because Burns and Novick opted to rely almost entirely on period footage, “The Vietnam War” at times feels like it is under the very spell it seeks to dispel — saturated with imagery that, in its graininess and familiarity, is safely distancing.

At the same time, the sheer volume of historical record that “The Vietnam War” puts together is astounding. The directors match the first-person accounts with archival material so often that it is uncanny; instead of bringing history to bear on the present, the documentary instead asks the viewer to step into the past. Taped conversations between President Lyndon Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, are notable not just for their candor about their doubts about the war but also for their window into the speech patterns and professional male bonding of the ‘60s. “The Vietnam War” carefully portrays warfare as a system of interlocking processes — such as the mechanics of the draft or the nuts and bolts of a strategy like General Westmoreland’s attempt to reach a “crossover point.” The processes at first seem guileless, but their outcomes ultimately revealed unjust biases or excused brutal tactics that characterized the war’s worst injustices. These, the documentary doesn’t have to outline: In story after story, soldiers are killed, wounded, and traumatized by the dozen, with such marginal gains as to be essentially insignificant.

The excuse for all of this was communism — a topic of some significance today, still. It is perhaps “The Vietnam War’s” most elegant stroke that the question of communism is marginal to the narrative but an ever-present, lingering doubt. Many of those staunchly opposed to the thread of “the Reds” are eventually shattered by the war’s realities. In its portrayal of a divided electorate, tensions at home and abroad, unstable leadership, and nuclear brinkmanship, “The Vietnam War” presents an American political moment not too dissimilar from the present. Perhaps that is why the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” begins with an arresting sequence of images that rewinds some of the most iconic footage from the war, in reverse chronological order, to take the audience back to the start. Though at first that might seem overly literal for a historical documentary, it’s also painfully hopeful. Bullets are un-shot. Bombs are un-dropped. Lives are, mercifully, un-lost.

TV Review: Ken Burns' Documentary 'The Vietnam War'

Docuseries, 10 episodes (4 reviewed): PBS, Sun. Sept. 17, 8 p.m. 120 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick, Ken Burns

Cast

Narrated by Peter Coyote

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  1. Ed L. says:

    I hate to use such a hackneyed descriptor, but this is Burns’ et al most “important” work to date. A must-see. Not that we humans will ever learn from our mistakes. We are doomed to repeat them again and again.

  2. Patricia Kirby says:

    My husband was in Viet Nam and we looked forward to watching it last night but there was no sound. I recorded it and it also had no sound. Will it be run again? (with sound?) I posted on Facebook to see if others had the same problem. Some said it was good and was sorry we had no sound.

  3. Hoang says:

    The series, unfortunately, is lack of Southern Vietnam voice, an equally important side of the war that has been long neglected. No wonder the author wrote, “… still not found a way to answering the docuseries’ central question: Why did this awful thing happen — and keep happening, even when so many decisionmakers knew better?” We need another series to hear from the soldiers and the people of South Vietnam to understand what had happened, and why we didn’t win.

  4. Hyunkyu Ngyuan O'Brian says:

    Having seen some advanced chapters of this, Burns presents the facts. Most of the footage speaks for itself, one thing that is lost here: is that this film was not made for the people who lived through it. All these old hippies will protest this film, but for the average 15 year old, this will enlighten them a bit. As painful as it is to watch, Burns presents many sides of the war. He tells it right down the middle without coloring from left or right.

    Budda

  5. Larry Sarvis says:

    Hmmm…From that review this sounds like all the other films/documentaries we have already seen. Coming up with excuses for dodging the draft and if soldiers are shown they are of the “broken” variety that the media love. Many people forget this was back during the Civil Rights struggle. The KKK and the left of that era demanded boys dodged the draft. Neither wanted to help Asians and serve beside blacks. Both laughed about the DARKER and POORER folks who took their place…really both the left and right laughed and then spent decades discriminating against those who served. I wonder when the true story of Vietnam will be told.

    • Pam Miller says:

      You are incorrect when you state: “The KKK and the left of that era demanded boys dodged the draft.” At that time, the KKK was as hiding under the radar because they were an example of whom America despised, and the “left” was *not* the left of today and did *not* make any demands of its youth other than to think and act for themselves. “Neither wanted to help Asians and serve beside blacks.” The KKK were and always will be cowards and will not do anything beyond their own self-serving cowardly ass-saving. If you are saying young draftees didn’t suit up, show up and rely on their buddies in-country regardless of color you are ignorant of fact. Your kind of ignorance — and stupidity is what still plagues those who are old enough to have lived through that traumatic period.

    • Dunstan says:

      Your statement about the KKK demanding boys dodge the draft is absurd. What facts do you have that back up that insane statement? And please don’t combine the KKK with the left; those against the war were desperately trying to wake people up to the insanity of our presence there.

      As someone who was of draft age at the time but had a college deferment (and a hernia), I never heard that kind of lunacy.

      The plain truth is that the reason for the U.S. entering the internal conflict in Vietnam was the now-infamous Gulf Of Tonkin incident where we were told that the Vietnamese had fired on one of our ships. If I remember right, that wasn’t even what actually happened. And even if it did happen, that was no reason to send hundreds of thousands of troops there resulting in the horrible loss of life on both sides, the resulting PTSD and the permanently wounded.

      And Nixon’s continuation of the war was as outrageous as Johnson’s escalation.

    • justin Nother says:

      Exactly.

      This review and Burn’s documentary are just the latest piece of propaganda; Burns and his media ilk helped the NV win the war. Their own top generals admitted they were on the verge of surrender after the U.S. / S. Vietnamese push but then took heart after Cronkite and the U.S. Left, with documented financial assistance from the USSR started massive demonstrations against the war.

      “….all characterized by an earnest patriotism”

      Burns has never been a patriot.

      ” that goes hand in hand with his longstanding partnership with public television”.

      And Public Television is demonstrably anti-American.

      I wonder if Burns interviewed any of the millions of Vietnamese who fled when the U.S. pulled out and the North took over the entire country. Did he spend more than a few seconds on the Viet Cong Tiger Cages that U.S. POWs were confined in. compared to his fulminations against Agent Orange, etc.?

      Did Burns discuss how Obama’s anti-warmentors and friend’s William Ayers and Bernadette Dhorn killed people with their bombs and bank robberies, and laid plans to murder 25 million Americans in their Prairie Fire Manifesto?

      There was nothing wrong with the Vietnam war except how we prosecuted it.

      • Eva Paris says:

        Mr. Justin Nother: Your fair, keenest point of views would be highly recommended and greatly appreciated from the true patriots.

      • MIke says:

        As the documentary shows and as the information availabe at the time of the Vietnam War showed, the majority of the Vietnamese people wanted to establish a unified country free of foreign domination and free of corruption. The motivation for the courageous fight of the Vietnamese peope against the United States was not communism. I believe history will condemn anybody who fought the Vietnamese in their heroic war against the United States and the corrupt South Vietnamese government

      • Gene in L.A. says:

        I was a medic in Vietnam, and the first thing I did after I got home was join Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

        The only thing wrong with how we prosecuted the war was that we did it at all. We never had anything to gain from it, and over 58,000 of my fellows gave up their lives for nothing. People don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.

      • Dunstan says:

        Justin, why don’t you go troll somewhere else?

        Which NV generals admitted this and when? What year are you referring to? Where are your facts?

        I protested against the war and I was never part of some financial assistance from the USSR. That’s laughable. We protested because there was NO reason for U.S. troops to be there. None. The Domino Theory proved to be completely false.

        How do you know Burns is a patriot? And who are you to judge? He’s made some extraordinary documentaries about the Civil War, the Roosevelts, baseball etc. Who put you in charge of judging his patriotism or that of PBS.

        You can’t review a program you haven’t seen. At best, only a few of the episodes have been made available for critics/reviewers. And you’re obviously not one of either group.

        My suggestion to you is to shut your pie-hole and actually watch all eighteen hours. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the background to intelligently comment on the program.

        I have a friend whose father volunteered to make bombing runs over Vietnam; he was not stationed there at any time prior to his volunteering. His entire immediate family (wife and four kids) were incredibly supportive and could best be described as a strong military family.

        After he was shot down and went MIA, they began to change their opnions and became outspoken critics, not just of the war (this was after it had ended) but of the treatment families were getting from the Pentagon about their missing loved ones.

        Your raising of Obama in this thread shows how out of touch with reality you and others of your ilk are. One thing has nothing to do with the other.

        If only more of our soldiers had refused to serve back then, they’d be alive today.

        You can not fight an insurgency and expect to win, no matter how much manpower, firepower or any other kind of power you have. That’s why we’re presently mired in the middle east.

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