History, heartbreaking art merge in Ken Burns’ ‘Vietnam War’ series

U.S. troops watch over a body.Photo: “The Vietnam War” via PBS, © The Vietnam Film Project LLC


I have seen and heard all 1,080 minutes of “The Vietnam War” at least once. Scattered among those 18 hours are minutes I’ve screened as many as 10 times, some for professional reasons, most for personal ones.

Even so, I will watch “The Vietnam War” again starting September 17 when the 10-episode documentary from co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their colleagues at Florentine Films premieres nationally on PBS (Channel 9 in St. Louis).

Why watch it again? Partly to fill in vast factual gaps in my knowledge. Partly to correct defects in knowledge I had believed was factual but isn’t. But mostly, I’ll watch “The Vietnam War” again because it is a dense and deep work of non-fiction art that is more beautiful, heart-breaking, inspiring, infuriating and honest than any other such work I have seen on a screen of any size under any circumstances, including Burns’s previous distinguished films of the last 35 years.

“The Vietnam War” earns this assessment in several ways.  First, it focuses on a phenomenon that arguably has had greater impact on the United States than anything else since World War II.

Second, the film maintains control of its sprawling subject matter by practicing the demanding disciplines of visual and aural storytelling at an extraordinarily high level of professionalism. 

Third, it assembles a diverse array of people who tell compelling stories.

They include combat veterans from the United States, from the armies of what once were the separate entities of South Vietnam and North Vietnam, and from cadres of guerrilla fighters (the Viet Cong) who fought in the south but were aligned with the government in the north.

There are also parents, siblings and friends of troops who lost their lives in war, and journalists who risked their lives for weeks searching for truth and understanding as they lived with and accompanied U.S. forces on combat missions.

And there are people who opposed American military action in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) on moral and political grounds and who worked – sometimes making ugly, stupid mistakes in the process – to end U.S. involvement and bring the troops home.

Finally, beyond the film’s graphic footage and the technical skill and editorial judgment with which it puts together images, sounds and music, what elevates the stature of “The Vietnam War” more than anything else is its relentless exploration of the contradictory impulses we human beings are capable of:

Sacrifice and selfishness; modesty and arrogance; honor and disgrace; hope and despair; trust and betrayal; faith and denial; brotherhood and bigotry; honesty and deception; intelligence and ignorance; love, kindness and caring alongside savagery, cruelty and brutality; and astonishing bravery and paralyzing fear, not infrequently occurring simultaneously within one person.

So whoever you are, whatever you did or not did not do during the Vietnam War years, whatever your thoughts and feelings were or are about the war’s validity and conduct,  and even if you had not yet been born when the conflict in Vietnam tore apart the United States 8,600 miles away, please watch “The Vietnam War.” 

And know going in that some moments will be difficult to watch and difficult to think about and that a running time of 18 hours involves no minor commitment of your time.

On top of that, as Burns acknowledged in a conversation we had last week for this column, “There’ll be moments when you hate it, because it’s saying the thing that’s opposite to what you feel or what you believe,” he said. “But wait two minutes, and it’ll be saying exactly what you feel and believe. And then be prepared because two minutes after that, it might be yet another thing that you didn’t know whether you liked or you didn’t like.” 

This push-pull structure wasn’t exactly purposeful, but it wasn’t exactly accidental, either.

“I can’t say that there’s a kind of absolute intentionality to that,” Burns told me, “but we know that that’s a byproduct of not having an agenda, not having your thumb on the scale and just tolerating complexity. Conventional wisdom is about the simplification of complicated aspects, and we just did the opposite of that. We just complicated it, because it is complicated.” 

In this context, Burns frequently invokes something the great musician, composer and educator Wynton Marsalis said during production of Burns’ documentary “Jazz” in the late 1990s:

“He said, ‘The thing and an opposite of a thing can be true at the same time.’ It was revelatory to me when he said that. I think about it all the time, and it’s no more obvious than it is here [in the Vietnam series], even though it’s a truth that suffuses life.”  

Add to Marsalis’ observation an idea once expressed by a great movie director who was no stranger to controversy, Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Gentleman’s Agreement”):

“The camera is more than a recorder. It’s a microscope. It penetrates. It goes into people, and you see their most private and concealed thoughts.” 

This cinematic truth asserts itself again and again throughout “The Vietnam War” in quiet interviews, most of them handled by co-director Lynn Novick, with the ordinary people in America and Southeast Asia who share their stories for the film.

In one moment, for example, you see a split-second sense of revelation flash across a mother’s face as she realizes the part she inadvertently played in motivating her son, who died in the war, toward military service.

In another, you see a Marine veteran hesitate for a half-second, blink his eyes and look down as the camera, which misses nothing, catches him catching himself. He had just described how the realities of combat require that you adapt your perspective so that “it doesn’t bother you.” After that half-second, he adds a qualifier. “I should say, it doesn’t bother you as much.” 

And you see a former Viet Cong political officer remembering a beloved younger brother who died during the war and what happened to the brother’s fiancée after his death. The man’s voice cracks, his eyes glisten and he turns away to shield his tears from the all-seeing camera.

Finally, the documentary includes recurring images of the hallowed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, universally called the Wall. Bearing the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the war, the Wall has become a place of remembrance, sorrow, pain and sometimes healing and hope, to which a succession of survivors attest.

The premiere of “The Vietnam War” may itself prove to be an important shared moment in the history of our country, which still struggles to accommodate the tragedies of that conflict. In the best of worlds, the film would add its own measure of hope and perhaps some sense of reconciliation to the healing process.