The brilliant, infuriating, boring, hypnotic Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War

By Todd VanDerWerff

The documentarian’s latest miniseries for PBS is a staggering achievement — and maybe his best work.

The projects of Ken Burns are designed to illuminate the past and, thereby, illuminate the present. You can’t watch, say, The Civil War and not see the barely papered-over fault lines that still exist in American politics, and a miniseries like Baseball could present a different prism through which to consider what America cares about.

Many Ken Burns projects are easy to leave in their space — earnest, occasionally dusty chronicles of the past. They reflect the present, but in ways that usually allow us to say, “Well, things have certainly changed since then.” You might find them intensely moving or graceful, but you may not return to them much after you’re done watching. You’ll think of them fondly when you stumble upon them on Netflix or a DVD shelf.

But The Vietnam War, the filmmaker’s latest, which he co-directed with Lynn Novick, reflects the present in ways that can be uncomfortable. It’s about an unpopular president — actually two unpopular presidents — who stews about unfair treatment from the press and protestors. It’s about a country that seems on the brink of fracturing over very different ideals of what that country should be. And it’s about the rise of a movement that believes “law and order” is more important than any other fundamental right.

Indeed, I watched all 18 hours of the miniseries (which are spread over 10 parts) way back in July, but I’ve found it returning to my thoughts, often unbidden, ever since. It feels, more than any of Burns’s projects, like a living document, like it’s not entirely in the past and keeps haunting us.

The Vietnam War is, in some way, about right now, while also being about something else entirely. I don’t know if it’s the best film Burns has ever made, but it’s certainly the one I’ve thought most about.

The Vietnam War should be too much, but it never is

The Vietnam WarAP/Frank C. Curtin for PBS
The documentary also covers the anti-war movement in detail.

The broader subject of every one of Burns’s films is American history. He’s stated in the past that while he has an interest in the history of other nations, it’s American history where he’s chosen to ply his trade. What’s more, his focus on American history usually starts from the ground up. He’s interested in how regular people reacted to the world-changing events swirling around them, as opposed to how, say, the president reacted. He wants to give us both perspectives, ideally — but he’s far more interested in the unknown people than those we already know well.

Those blindspots have, from time to time, gotten him in trouble, as when his 2007 World War II documentary The War became so intimately focused on a few core communities that it struggled to incorporate many Americans who had fought in the war (especially Latinos, which led to a minor controversy that Burns addressed before the series aired), and its view of the conflict could seem slightly myopic. At the very least, it felt as if the miniseries could have involved the US’s allies more than it did.

This is what makes The Vietnam War so notable. For much of the miniseries, Burns and Novick are balancing the following series of perspectives: American military members, people in the anti-war movement, family members of those military members, the American government, the North Vietnamese army, the North Vietnamese government, the South Vietnamese army, the South Vietnamese government, journalists, and various intelligence community members. It’s a lot. It should be too much, really. Yet it somehow never is.

Ken Burns and Lynn NovickStephanie Berger for PBS
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Burns and Novick don’t bury the lede, either. The second installment — which sees the US drawn into active military engagement in Vietnam in a sustained way — concludes with a then-secret government study which concluded that the war was likely impossible to win, and even if it could be won, the cost might be too much to bear. Viewers of the series will likely note that it takes another 10 years for the US to exit the country and conflict after that point.

What lies between that moment and the miniseries’ end (which is 15 hours away at that point) can be a long, brutal slog. Though PBS is offering the series on its website for binge viewers, I can’t imagine watching more than an episode or two at a time. There is something dark and murky and repetitive about the whole enterprise, especially as everyone involved sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire.

That, of course, also turns the film itself into a sort of metaphor for the Vietnam War. And it’s an open question whether you’ll want to watch an 18-hour miniseries that routinely wanders in circles, gets caught in the mud, and seems to repeat itself over and over again. The film has unique access to actual film footage of the event compared to much of the rest of Burns’s filmography, but that footage sometimes seems to show the same things multiple times. What’s more, it uses pop hits of the period to the point of distraction (some very obviously). It would be easy to turn The Vietnam War off in irritation.

But Burns and Novick have a larger point to this, about how easy it is to second-guess history once we know the outcome, and about how hard it is to liberate yourself from destructive cycles, even when you know you’re trapped in them. The US didn’t have to go to Vietnam, but it did. And then it destroyed so many lives because of it.

Yet the miniseries is also generous to its subjects. You’re not going to come away from this thinking that Burns and Novick treated any of their interviewees unfairly. …read more

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