Documentary Series Review: ‘The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’ (2017)

Blu-ray box set cover art. (C) 2017 PBS and Florentine Films

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

Produced and Directed by: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick

Written by: Geoffrey C. Ward

Original Air Date(s): September 17-28, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country as it had probably never been polarized since before the Civil War, and we’ve never recovered. – Army veteran Phil Gioia

On September 17, 2017, The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick made its broadcast debut on over 300 local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations in the United States. Directed by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films colleague Lynn Novick, this ambitious 10-part series – which aired in the United Kingdom over the BBC in abridged form – explores the most controversial and divisive conflict in American history.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, THE VIETNAM WAR, tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history as it has never before been told on film. Visceral and immersive, the series explores the human dimensions of the war through revelatory testimony of nearly 80 witnesses from all sides—Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as combatants and civilians from North and South Vietnam. – Program description from PBS.org’s The Vietnam War official website

(C) 2017 PBS and Florentine Films

“There is No Single Truth in War”

Written by Burns’ frequent collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward (The Civil War, Baseball, The War, Prohibition, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History), The Vietnam War is an earnest effort to examine one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century. In 10 parts that span 117 years of Vietnam’s history – starting with France’s imposition of colonial rule on Indochina in the late 1850s, then segueing into the various stages of the Vietnamese struggle for independence, including a failed petition for more autonomy for “French Indochina” within the French Union by Ho Chi Minh to the victorious Allies after World War I; the four-year-long occupation during World War II by Japan and the emergence of Ho’s Viet Minh resistance group, which was backed by America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to today’s Central Intelligence; France’s bloody – and futile – postwar effort to reassert its colonial rule, which resulted in an unpopular war that ended with a humiliating defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; and finally, the 30-years-long American effort to “roll back Communism” in Vietnam that stymied six American Presidents and ended – after the loss of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese and eight years of an undeclared war –  with a hurried helicopter and seaborne evacuation of the last Americans and a handful of their South Vietnamese allies from Saigon in April of 1975.

With production costs estimated at $30 million, The Vietnam War is one of Ken Burns’ most ambitious documentary films; it took his creative team 10 years to gather archival footage, audio recordings, and still photographs from various countries, including France, the U.S., and Vietnam, conduct hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses and veterans from all sides of the conflict, including anti-war protesters, soldiers, airmen, Marines, and former guerrillas.

Burns, Novick, and Ward decided early on not to simply focus on the American side of the war. As Burns and Novick note in their introduction to The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, the companion book to the series:

When Americans talk about the Vietnam War, the scholar and novelist Viet Than Nguyen wrote, too often we talk about ourselves. We were determined not to make that mistake. How could we hope to make sense of this turbulent time in our history, or to explore the humanity and inhumanity of all sides, without hearing directly from our allies and our enemies – the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians we fought with and against?  Off and on for several years, we traveled to Texas, California, and Virginia to get to know many Vietnamese Americans who came to the United States as refugees, having suffered the unimaginable loss not just of their families, friends, and comrades, but of their country. They spoke honestly about the failings of their own government, and shared their doubts and fears about whether the Republic of South Vietnam under Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky had been worth fighting for. “Thieu [and] Ky, they were corrupt,” Saigon native Phan Quang Tue remembered. “They abused their position. And they received more from Vietnam than Vietnam received from them. We paid a very high price for having leaders like Ky and Thieu. And we continue to pay the price.”

The filmmakers also needed to get the perspective of the victors, too. They traveled to a unified Vietnam and went to various parts of the country, including Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Hue, and Hanoi, which at the height of the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s had the most extensive air defense system on Earth. Including sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that shot down hundreds of American aircraft over its airspace. Burns and Novick were surprised to note that “that the war remains as unsettled and painful for them as it is for us.”   

Ten years in the making, the series includes rarely seen and digitally re-mastered archival footage from sources around the globe, photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th Century, historic television broadcasts, evocative home movies, and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  – Program description from PBS.org’s The Vietnam War official website

The producers of The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novack interviewed 79 witnesses from the various “sides” of the conflict to get a grasp of such a complex and divisive war. On the American side, the interviewees included veterans such as John Musgrave, Philip Caputo, Everett Alvarez (the first U.S. pilot to be taken prisoner in August of 1964), Mike Cleland, and Roger Harris. On the anti-war side at the home front, we hear from Bill Zimmermann, Nancy Biberman, and Craig McNamara, whose father was Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

On the U.S. home front, too, we hear from family members who lost loved ones during the war, including protester Carol Crocker and her mother Jean Marie Crocker, who talk about Carol’s brother Denton “Mogie” Crocker, Jr., who volunteered for combat duty in the early years of the Vietnam War and was killed in action in 1966. Another parent, country singer Jan Howard, talks candidly about the death of her son in Vietnam, as well as her rejection of the anti-war movement. Howard, a conservative, supported the war as part of America’s larger crusade to fight Communism during the Cold War, and she recounts how she told local antiwar protesters who tried to sway her to their cause that if they ever darkened her doorstep again, she would have no qualms using deadly force against them.

As I noted earlier, The Vietnam War also features interviews with Vietnamese participants, including North Vietnamese Army truck driver Nguyen Nguyet Anh, National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) officer Nguyen Thoi Bung, journalist Huy Duc, former South Vietnamese diplomat Bui Diem, Tran Ngoc “Harry” Hue, ARVN (South Vietnamese army) lieutenant colonel, and Tran Ngoc Toan, South Vietnamese marine.

To give the audience a more nuanced view of the war, the filmmakers deliberately avoided interviewing “talking head” historians or pundits. They also did not include prominent persons such as John Kerry, John S. McCain III, Henry Kissinger, or Jane Fonda due to their polarizing viewpoints and personas. They appear in archival footage and film clips, but because some of them still stir up much anger and resentment in Americans on both sides of the great divide – the chasm, as Burns and Novick describe it – caused by the conflict – they were not interviewed.

The Series

Promo image from the PBS store

The series is divided into 10 parts and covers, as noted earlier, 117 years of Vietnamese history, although the bulk of the series focuses on the 11 years that passed between the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the summer of 1964 and the fall of Saigon in late April of 1975. 25 major battles are chronicled within the 10 episodes, including the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley – the subject of the 2002 film We Were Soldiers – the Tet Offensive of January 1968, the 1970  U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia – which triggered the tragedy at Kent State University in May 1970 –  the Spring Offensive of 1972, the “Christmas” bombing campaign of December 1972,  the North Vietnamese “test’ offensives of late 1974 to see if the Americans would return in force after withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973, and the tragic collapse of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975.

These battles are examined from the perspectives of all the combatants, and are depicted in archival footage from France, the U.S., and Vietnam. There are also many clips of American news broadcasts charting the course of the Vietnam War, including various Congressional hearings on the conduct of the war, plus the various protests and antiwar demonstrations – some peaceful, some violent – that have seared their imprint on the American psyche.

 Per the 2017 PBS Blu-ray set’s episode guide, here are the 10 parts:

  1. Déjà vu (1858-1961)
  2. Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)
  3. The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)
  4. Resolve (January 1966-June 1967)
  5. This is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967)
  6. Things Fall Apart (January 1968-July 1968)
  7. The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)
  8. The History of the World (April 1969-May 1970)
  9. A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973)
  10. The Weight of Memory (March 1973-Onward)

My Take

Wars, all wars, create a kind of dissonance that obfuscates and deflects clear understanding. Vietnam is no different. To shed new light on such a complicated and unsettled time in our his­tory, to struggle to comprehend the special dissonance that is the Vietnam War, we needed to look beyond the familiar stories Americans have told about the war and include as many different perspectives as our narrative could accommodate. Nearly one hundred “ordinary” people agreed to share their stories with us on camera: grunts and officers in the Army and Marines, prison­ers of war, a fighter pilot and a helicopter crew chief, a Gold Star mother and the sister of a fallen soldier, a nurse, college students, reporters, protesters, military analysts, spies, and many others. To have been present as they bore witness to their experiences remains for us one of the enduring gifts of this project.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, on why they made the film, “The Vietnam War: An Intimate History”

I watched The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novack when it premiered in September of 2017 on my local PBS station. I sat through the entire series – almost 18 hours of it – and was in turns mesmerized and horrified by the folly of America’s involvement in a conflict that was not ours to intervene in, the costs of the war in terms of lives lost, billions misspent, and the divisiveness it caused in American society, a divisiveness that caused a rift between conservatives and liberals that never healed, and led, directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the United States.

Since its first broadcast on PBS, I bought the series on Blu-ray, and I re-watch it at least once a year. Not just because it’s a well-made documentary by a team of filmmakers with a stellar track record of making fine films such as The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, and Prohibition, but because it’s necessary to understand the Vietnam era if we are to get a grasp on what America and the world are going through in 2020.

I’ve been a fan of the films of Ken Burns since I watched his 1990 PBS documentary series The Civil War. Here he and his co-director Lynn Novick take the viewer on a journey back to the tragic and turbulent Sixties and Seventies through the use of archival film footage, photographs, and music from the period, including songs performed by Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Wright, The Beatles (who rarely license their songs to documentaries, but here Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr allowed Florentine Films to use three of them, including Let It Be), The Animals, Wilson Pickett, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and more.

THE VIETNAM WAR features more than 100 iconic musical recordings from the greatest artists of the era and haunting original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma.

“The Vietnam War” at PBS.ORG

To narrate the nearly 18-hours-long documentary, Ken Burns once again turned to actor Peter Coyote (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), who has lent his vocal talents to other Florentine Films documentaries, including The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts: An Intimate Story, and the more recent Country Music. Coyote delivers the words written by Geoffrey C. Ward with a measured Henry Fonda-like quality that lends gravitas and credibility to the narration.

Before I watched The Vietnam War, I had no idea that the Watergate scandal that rocked the nation in the early Seventies was a continuation of Richard Nixon’s dirty dealings with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks in 1968 before that year’s Presidential election. The Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey,  had a slight lead in the polls that fall, but Nixon’s collusion with Thieu led to a temporary collapse in the negotiations in Paris, which then gave the Republican candidate a boost in the polls shortly before Election Day 1968.  

Nixon, who then pledged to end the war with honor, actually made matters worse by bombing and then invading Cambodia in 1970, thus widening the war and delaying its end.

President Johnson was aware, through the efforts of the CIA and FBI, of Nixon’s secret deal with Thieu, but tired and bitter about the unpopularity of what many Americans called “Johnson’s War,” he did nothing about the Republican’s collusion with a foreign leader to delay a peace deal and swing public opinion in Nixon’s favor.

And as The Vietnam War illustrates, most of the various Nixonian dirty tricks and conflicts with the media – including the break-in into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office during the Pentagon Papers brouhaha (the subject of Steven Spielberg’s The Post) – that climaxed with the June 1972 break-in into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC are linked to that secret agreement between Republican operatives and South Vietnam’s Thieu, who thought Nixon would get a better deal in Paris from the North Vietnamese than Humphrey.  

The documentary covers a wide array of topics, ranging from President Harry S. Truman’s decision to help finance France’s ill-considered effort to reassert its colonial authority in a Vietnam that had declared its independence on Sept. 2, 1945 to the creation of the once-controversial Vietnam War Memorial designed by Maya Lin.  In between those events, separated in time by 36 years, The Vietnam War shows things that were done that cannot be undone and makes us hear things that were said that cannot be unsaid.

As anti-war activist Nancy Bieberman says in Part 10, The Weight of Memory:

I have been to the wall more than once. When I look back at the war and think of the horrible things we said to vets who were returning, calling them “baby killers” or worse, I feel very sad about that. I can only say that we were kids too, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

2 thoughts on “Documentary Series Review: ‘The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’ (2017)

    1. Yes, it is sad.

      It just goes to show you that when you have politicians involved in public education, combined with the well-known influence of conservatives in deciding what textbooks can and, most crucially, CAN’T teach kids, you don’t really get much of an education, especially in social studies.

      Most of the history I knew in school back in the Seventies and Eighties was self-taught, not learned in school. Obviously, I tended to specialize in military history, so in other areas I was woefully lacking in knowledge.

      This is why PBS and Ken Burns documentaries need to be protected from right-wing “eliminators.”

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: