Revisiting all of Ken Burns’ distillations of America’s wars would be an illuminating endeavor, if only to see how his storytelling style has evolved and how the nation has transformed along the way. Starting with 1990’s seminal “The Civil War,” pressing onward through 2007’s “The War” (World War II) before finally diving into “The Vietnam War,” premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS member stations, Burns uses these flashpoints in history to hold a mirror up to America at points of interesting political and social shift.
“The Civil War” aired during the opening weeks of the Gulf War and during George H.W. Bush’s administration. “The War” came to us prior to the election of Barack Obama, and several years into another Middle Eastern combat that continues to ensnarl us today.
Airing “The Vietnam War” now feels right, and prescient.
Burns’ oeuvre provokes conversations about our history and leads us to ask questions about our sense of national identity, a concept popularly and naively believed to be held in common. Through his meticulous examinations of the political, economic and social elements that uneasily mixed and boiled into armed hostilities, Burns lays out in concise and exhaustive detail the ways in which each of these conflicts became crucibles inside of which America’s bruised pieces were forged into something new.
But to watch all of Burns’ war series, in succession, would be a ponderous undertaking. “The Civil War” runs for 11 hours and 30 minutes. “The War” clocks in 14 hours, and includes poignant testimony from the remaining veterans of that campaign, helping the viewer to understand why our culture still hangs on to it as an example of American exceptionalism.
No such sentimentality clings to the Vietnam War, which only begins to explain why our collective knowledge about the decades-long struggle largely consists of fragments.
“The Vietnam War,” Burns’ 18-hour, 10-episode documentary series narrated by Peter Coyote, is a natural follow-up to “The War,” a fact Burns and Lynn Novick recognized upon completing their 2007 docuseries. The United States emerged from World War II with an enhanced idea of its status as a nation of good and morally upright citizens despite the proliferation of segregation and gender inequity. “The Vietnam War” shattered that by bringing the senseless, violent chaos of a country few Americans cared about into our living rooms, eventually becoming a nexus for the civil rights and feminist movements to galvanize their efforts and shift passive Americans into action.
Burns confessed to harboring a longstanding resistance to tackling Vietnam, given the roiled attitudes surrounding it. Collecting accounts from veterans featured in “The War,” all in their 80s and 90s, changed his mind.
As chroniclers of history he and Novick felt a responsibility to collect the perspectives of the many people who lived through Vietnam war -- survivors from both sides, fighters, families of soldiers, and protesters. The nature of the conflict dictated that “The Vietnam War” be more inclusive than Burns’ examination of World War II, which he told through the viewpoint of four “quintessentially American towns” that translated to a mostly white perspective. (Burns and Novick added interviews with two Hispanic veterans as well as a Native American veteran to "The War" after PBS took heat from critics and other groups.)
Such an omission is unusual for Burns, who makes America’s troubled relationship with race central to his work. And "The Vietnam War" deftly weaves such observations throughout its hours while also speaking to the prejudice and abuse servicemen such as Roger Harris endured during and after his tour.
Research for “The Vietnam War” began in 2006, and the time and painstaking effort taken by Burns, Novick and historian Geoffrey C. Ward to realize this project shines through, ensuring viewers will feel every second of its 18 hours. This is a compliment.
If nothing else, Burns and Novick reveal the extent of our general ignorance and the mythmaking surrounding this impactful chapter of our history. The bulk of what the average person knows about the battlefield is filtered through the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone via “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”
Some people can recall names, places and its watershed events: Ho Chi Minh and General William Westmoreland; Saigon and Hanoi; the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre. Gathered together they create a nebulous outline of a grisly boondoggle, an embarrassing and humbling defeat, another pile of reasons to despise Richard Nixon or Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower, or John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson.
All played a part in creating and expanding a war that claimed 58,220 American lives as well as the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. All of it served to taint the public’s esteem of the presidency, shifting our views of what it means to be an American and our definition of patriotism.
From its outset the producers establish the war as a historical event marked by universal loss, with no clear winners. Beginning with Sunday’s episode “Déjà Vu,” the series commences in 1858 with a requisite skimming of the French colonialization of the region. This is necessary to establish the profundity of the challenge facing the United States when it took up the reins of the conflict in 1955, but the producers wisely intersperse the chronological breakdown of the First Indochina War with accounts from American soldiers who fought there years later.
Burns and Novick have stressed many times that their sole intent is to tell the story of Vietnam without inferring anything about America’s modern conflicts in the Middle East. Nor was it their intent for “The Vietnam War” to explicitly connect the violent social tensions of its subject’s era to the acrimonious cultural and political divisions bedeviling us right now. The producers commenced the project midway through George W. Bush’s second term and before Barack Obama was elected to the presidency for the first time. They were editing it during the most recent presidential election campaign, and it was mostly finished by the time Donald Trump was inaugurated.
And yet within its 10 episodes are mass demonstrations against the administration in power, a sitting president ranting about a disloyal media (“Your press is lying like drunken soldiers every day!” Johnson growls to a subordinate in one recording), a White House beset by leaks, classified material going public, and a presidential campaign accused of soliciting foreign power to sway a national election.
The soul of “The Vietnam War” rests in the accounts provided by its 79 subjects, who render the conflict in the context of the torn flesh and spilled blood of men and women, American and Vietnamese. Allowing the living to lead the narrative grants the series a corporeal integrity that somewhat eludes a few of Burns’ previous looks at our past; this is not a critique of the filmmaker’s talent, but a recognition of the emotional contrast between recreating narratives through documentation and interviews of experts.
One method seduces the memory, as “The Civil War” does with poetic readings of crumbling letters and grainy shots of sepia-toned photographs. The other transports the senses with visceral, graphic visuals and revelatory audio, particularly Johnson’s acidic tirades aimed at military personnel and other officials in his administration. Hearing the records of the people who felt the heat and can describe the smell of death in a world on fire is an extraordinary experience made even more arresting by the accompaniment of raw battle film.
Perhaps because enough time has passed to enable those who fought and killed to speak frankly about their actions with varying degrees of sorrow, anger and shame, the series has an unfiltered honesty and evenhandedness other treatments on Vietnam have not captured.
Some scenes feature interviews with North Vietnamese soldiers and officers, some wearing their old uniforms with pride. In another, an American soldier calmly describes what it was like to strangle the life out of an enemy fighter he came across in a dark tunnel. The producers enable us to view the plain humanity of each side without casting judgment. At times these impressions take on a tone of philosophical confession, such as when the American sums up the nightmare of killing a stranger by saying, “That wasn’t the only casualty. The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”
Not one opportunity is wasted in its reveal of the war’s visceral degradation, from the quilt of footage gleaned from American news outlets, home movies and archives made accessible to the filmmakers by Vietnam’s government, to the sound editing and the cold, digital metal-on-metal grind of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ contributions to the score — suitably humanized by melodies composed by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
The audio layer of “The Vietnam War” is as impressive as the video, with a soundtrack that includes more than 120 songs by such legends of the era as Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and, even more incredibly, the Beatles.
All of it folds together into an immersive and wrenching creation that left me genuinely curious as to whether viewers will have the stamina to spend several nights in a row with the series. Certainly watching “The Vietnam War” is one of the most worthwhile ways to spend time with your television this fall. Just as certainly, committing to doing so will wear a person out.
But even the agonizing grind of psychologically battering episodes such as “Things Fall Apart” contain a stylistic transcendence. For within its a brick-by-brick recreation of the Tet Offensive hides a ghastly surrealism: In the heat of the carnage in Saigon, Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz lilts in the background, followed by strains of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its assurances that “it is not dying, it is not dying.” This is historically appropriate, we're told. It’s also insane, and we’re made to feel that, too.
Including “The Vietnam War,” Burns and Novick’s current slate of war series adds up to a breathtaking 43 hours of viewing. While I hesitate to say it’s impossible to binge this entire body of work, the breadth and scope of the storytelling expands with each phase. “The Vietnam War” airs in two sections, with episodes 1 through 5 airing Sunday through Thursday at 8 p.m. and 6 through 10 running on the same schedule the following week. Viewers may appreciate the break to collect their thoughts and emotions, and perhaps to appreciate the prodigious timeliness of this achievement.