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.