PBS has been hyping the new film series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for nearly a year. While I have been anticipating the release, I also had a few concerns about the treatment the subject would get at their hands. Recent American television documentaries on the war have been a mixed bag.
Early in the previous decade, the makers of the popular World War II series Battlefield made a miniseries on the Vietnam War that dodged a lot of potential bullets. It was even-handed and adequately explained the political roots of the war while being very detailed on the military aspects of the conflict. The overall watchability of the series was hampered, however, by low production values, which also afflicted its Second World War predecessor. Its dearth of interviews,though, was a strength, leaving room for a coherent narrative.
Early in this decade, The History Channel aired its ‘Vietnam in HD’ series, which used pretty, remastered footage to great effect. Narratively, however, it might as well have aired on FOX News. The title was the most Vietnamese thing about it.
Late last decade, Burns and Novick produced their epic treatment of the Second World War, titled simply The War. It focused on four US towns, which gave it a weirdly narrow feel that seemed out of place in a show about a truly global war. This narrative gave the work a claustrophobic feel that, of necessity, left a lot out and, even worse, reinforced the erroneous American view of a US-centric conflict rather than correcting it. In that sense, it seemed an unnecessary project. The Burns trademark interview-centered narrative did nothing to mitigate these flaws.
After staying up too late on multiple nights to binge-watch Burns’ and Novick’s new 10-part, 18-hour PBS epic on the Vietnam War, I can happily report that these errors, for the most part, have not been repeated here. The political roots of the war; the American blindness to the multipolar nature of communism and the nationalist roots of the Viet Minh, North Vietnam, and the NLF; the memos that showed that American officials knew the effort to prop up an illegitimate regime in Saigon were likely doomed; the internal squabbles within North Vietnam over the pace and direction of the war: it’s all here. It also represents a more masterful grasp of tone and mood than we have seen from these filmmakers in some time.
In the first seven minutes of the Tet Offensive, starting about a half hour into the sixth episode, we are treated to a cascade of violent imagery of the NVA/NLF assault on Saigon, culminating in a lucidly hallucinogenic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ playing over strategically timed footage of dead VC and civilians while the lyric ‘it is not dying’ reverberates through the recorded Leslie Cabinet, before abruptly segueing into Johnnie Carson telling us that his show would be postponed before going, without intro, into an NBC Special Bulletin. The result is a head-snapping lesson in how disorienting the Tet Offensive must have seemed to the miniskirt-enthralled masses at home. It’s a brilliant quarter-hour of film-making that rewards (or punishes) us for sitting through the previous ten and a half.
The series’ attempts to be even-handed occasionally cause it to pull some punches, but most of the offending moments are mediated through interviews with US veterans and former officials whose biases are all too clear. Communist atrocities are discussed, but so are American. Throughout is infused what I would call a Centrist narrative that the war was a mistake, with successive American administrations chained to a Manichean version of the Cold War and unable to see the Nationalist roots of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement. Antiwar movements in the United States are generally dealt with sympathetically, with the exception of the tendency to display NLF or North Vietnamese insignia at most antiwar rallies. Toward the end of the series, a great deal of attention is paid to American POWs and their role as subjects of the peace negotiations, a role that seems exaggerated given their infinitesimal number, when compared to the titanic suffering occurring everywhere in the theater. There may be some historical justification in that emphasis, as they did in fact play a part in the negotiations. In context, however, their suffering, however real, takes on the character of ‘First World problems’ when compared to the millions of Vietnamese dead in the conflict.
This series devotes more time and attention to Vietnamese voices, North and South, than other mass-market American television of the past. This pays off in a number of ways, fleshing out the narrative and giving a more complicated picture of the motivations of America’s friends and enemies than we have seen. There is some truly fascinating material here, from ARVN officers to South Vietnamese diplomats and a variety of North Vietnamese and NVA officers and combatants.
There’s no doubt that this series is worth your time. While it lacks a truly radical narrative, there is plenty here to indict an American regime that quite simply lost its mind and killed millions. It also contains many sincere American voices defending or questioning their actions in one of America’s worst moments.