Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is intense and inclusive. We got an early look at the forthcoming film Tuesday at San Diego’s GI Film Festival.
Written By Kyle Magin
A series of slow bass concussion accompanies scenes from ‘Nam in the introduction to Ken Burns and filmmaking partner Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War, a documentary set to air starting Sept. 17 on PBS.
The concussions grow in rapidity to accompany rapidly-appearing images until you realize Burns is laying the thunderous thumps of helicopter blades over the pictures.
A few episodes into the 10-episode, 18-hour opus, the filmmakers show the NBC footage of the scene that made the war’s most or second-most famous photo, the midday execution of Viet Cong terrorist Nguyen Van Lem. American viewers see, many for the first time, the entirety of the incident on video—South Vietnamese police commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan clearing a Saigon street and blowing Lem’s brains out with a revolver. You see Lem drop to the street and blood pour out of his freshly-opened skull. It’s graphic, and a vast departure from the stuff you’re used to seeing from Burns and Novick, who have brought viewers sepia-steeped films ranging from the Civil War to Jackie Robinson and the National Parks.
Sonically, the film is different, from those helicopter blades to protest anthems and Ray Charles’ America the Beautiful—the brief preview didn’t include Burns’ more staid scoring. This isn’t your dad’s Ken Burns’ film, and that’s OK, because Vietnam is probably more relevant than any other film the longtime documentarian has shot. It also has a chance, maybe a duty, to be the center around which the masses of Vietnam films, books, and TV shows can spin. The war is not an untold story—nonfiction has its Best and Brightest, fiction its Collection of Heng Souk; Platoon, Rambo, Forrest Gump, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Deer Hunter all take very different roads in the same country. Boomers and Gen Xers alike have spent years telling their and their father’s story of the war, but there’s no encompassing document that’s been accessible to the masses. Every bit of Vietnam has fit in someone’s narrative and thusly been constrained.
Burns’ marathon-length documentary promises to give everything a home.
Vietnam succeeds with its license to be different stylistically because the subject matter provides more raw video footage to mine than any other Burns topic to date due to its relative recency. It needs to hew to the template Burns and Novick have set down in their past projects, however, because America’s involvement spanned parts of three decades and the war spawned a lot of the cultural and political differences that persist today.
Here’s a brief checklist of what The Vietnam War appears to do well from the short preview we saw:
Define Vietnam’s scale—School history tells us Vietnam lasted from somewhere in the early 60s to somewhere in the early 70s. Vietnam is promising to cover the actions of every American presidency between Truman and Ford, including the history of French colonization of what was once Indochina. Setting the table on Vietnam is so important because too often we dive into 1968 with no context and are hopelessly confused about how we got there.
Define Tonkin and Tet—The two most important dates in the war are 1964’s Gulf of Tonkin Incident and 1968’s Tet Offensive. If you only know those two events from their names, that’s understandable. Any war lasting nearly a decade is going to start to run together. But, Tonkin— an incident involving an imaginary North Vietnamese attack on the U.S. Navy—provided Lyndon Johnson the impetus to grow the war to horrifying levels. Tet—a surprise attack by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops during the country’s holiday season—struck into the heart of South Vietnam and is marked by many as the turning point in an unsuccessful U.S. military effort. Vietnam appears to humanize both events and provide context for them, giving them a scale viewers can understand and setting them firmly in mind as the two dates to know from the war.
Introduce the Vietnamese—Almost no other American conflict has taken place against such an anonymous cast of characters. Outside of the nebulous, all-encompassing and racist moniker Charlie, Americans maybe know one name from the enemy camp in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam promises to introduce Le Duan—a mover in the North’s politburo and a sort of low-rent Stalin to Ho’s Trotsky or Lenin—as well as a whole host of Vietnamese warriors and commanders who were interviewed for the film. Humanizing yet another Asian army that has long been cast as a horde by Western historians will be key to understanding all belligerents from this conflict, not just the Americans. The filmmakers appear to have done this, and additionally peppered in interviews with scores of Vietnamese civilians, who, after all, bore the brunt of the conflict’s casualties. 58,000-plus Americans died in Vietnam, paling in comparison to the 250,000 South Vietnamese, 1,000,000 North Vietnamese and untold hundreds of thousands of civilians. Their story deserves to be included.
One aspect I didn’t see in the preview, but I hope is covered in the full film, is the massive amount of collateral damage the war in Vietnam caused its neighbors in Laos and Cambodia. The former struggled for decades afterward with unexploded ordinance ripping apart villagers unlucky enough to stumble upon it. The latter, of course, was deeply destabilized by the American bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—which ran through the nation—and allowed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the million-plus person body count run up by that particular group of extremist assholes. These tales are only slightly ancillary to the main thread, and definitely cries out for telling.
I’m really looking forward to this documentary. Burns always tells entertaining stories and finds interviewees who can bring history to life in aching detail. Vietnam has a helluva lot to unpack, and it’s got my attention.