While not quite a documentary war of attrition, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War stretches over 10 nights and 18 hours, and even though you feel that length at every turn, the series is meant to wear you down. And yet it’s impossible to look away.
Is Burns’ latest series brutal? Absolutely. The footage, some recognizable and some relatively fresh, is both nightmarish and often beautiful and the stories told by soldiers, diplomats and civilians on both sides are even more graphic and harrowing.
Is The Vietnam War repetitive? Certainly, and by design. Wars are won and lost on lessons unlearned and mistakes made over and over again, rarely more visibly than in a conflict that the U.S. watched the French lose and then waded in and proceeded to muddle in the same fashion.
Is The Vietnam War an assault on emotions? Throughout, and not just the concluding installment, in which the accumulated wisdom and ignorance and confusion of the war is put into perspective, or frustrating lack of perspective, and it’s hard for the subjects (and probably most viewers) to avoid tears. Sadness and anger abound.
On a micro level, The Vietnam War can’t compete with a subject-specific film like The Fog of War or Last Days in Vietnam or Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision or the still-seminal 1974 film Hearts and Minds, but as a macro examination, what Burns and Novick have accomplished is often remarkable, even if the filmmakers’ familiar aesthetics and familiar intellectual approaches lead to occasional moments of head-scratching or frustration.
Rigorous as ever, Burns and Novick begin with context. The initial episode focuses on a century of French occupation in Vietnam all the way back to 1858 and progressing through Dien Bien Phu. Installment by installment, the directors take us deeper and deeper into the morass of the Vietnam War, with episodes running between 82 minutes and nearly two hours, some covering years and some only six months. By the end of the first episode, the French know that waging a war in Vietnam is a lost cause. By the second episode, John F. Kennedy has worries about the conflict Americans are sliding into. By the third episode, titled “The River Styx,” Lyndon Johnson knows he’s stuck, but there’s ample descending and more mistakes to be made. The Vietnam War is mostly very linear and if you know your history, you can see some of the inevitable showcase moments looming in the distance, like the Tet Offensive magnificently pieced together in the sixth episode, fittingly titled “Things Fall Apart.”
The Vietnam War is among Burns’ most contemporary sagas, which would have given him a wider ranger of potential interview subjects than the historians and experts on The Civil War or the available survivors of The Dust Bowl or The War. Effort has been made to mostly avoid Vietnam’s celebrity warriors, so while John McCain is discussed and appears in archival footage, other POWs like Hal Kushner are the featured interviews. Instead of the distraction of a John Kerry or an Oliver Stone, We follow the stories of veterans including Roger Harris, Matt Harrison, John Musgrave and Bill Ehrhart, personal journeys that begin in disparate places Middle America versus West Point, Marines versus Army, grunts versus officers arrive in the same maelstrom and then progress, sometimes unexpectedly, into heroism, into activism, into depression and often into all three. Novelists like Tim O’Brien and journalists like Joe Galloway and Neil Sheehan are ringers when it comes to reflecting on their experiences, but their linguistic polish isn’t superior to Mike Heaney wordlessly struggling to articulate the experience of losing nearly an entire platoon in an ambush. The series doesn’t always get people directly tied to the most pivotal moments, but there are plenty first-hand accounts like photographer Nick Ut remembering the moment of developing his famous “Napalm Girl” image.
The series finds many ways to tell the stories of soldiers who didn’t make it home, with both small portraits in courage and, spread across several episodes, the tale of “Mogie” Crocker, recounted through his own words, pictures and interviews with family members.
From the American side, most of what you see and hear in The Vietnam War will seem fairly familiar, not that that detracts from its power. Where The Vietnam War most differentiates itself and raises its game is with the myriad voices from the Vietnamese side, or rather from the Vietnamese sides. It’s easy to expect viewers to empathize with the South Vietnamese soldiers and natives, trained and ultimately abandoned by their allies, and it’s a worthwhile challenge to give faces and ideology to the North Vietnamese, but getting young viewers to tell NVA and Viet Cong participants apart is a nuanced task the series is up to. In the early episodes, the Vietnamese talking heads are too frequently required to make broad cultural generalizations, but the specificity of their memories enhance later episodes especially when recalling key conflicts like the fight for Hue and illustrating the dark days after the American withdrawal. The involvement of Vietnamese women, especially on the North Vietnamese side in keeping the Ho Chi Minh trail open, offers a national contrast our military leaders were never able to understand we drafted men unwillingly into service against a country in which absolutely everybody was voluntarily doing their part and serves as a contrast to the relative absence of women depicted on the American side.
Other than a lone nurse, American women in The Vietnam War are wives, mothers and daughters, all defined in terms of men and, other than the Crocker family, all superfluous. The series does well with breaking down the economic disparities in enlisted men and draftees and offers a harsh photo montage chiding Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among those who got deferments or became reservists, but it’s a very white group of interview subjects for a war that was fought disproportionately by minorities. The eighth episode finally goes into some depth on the racial conflicts within the military, but that feels late and evasive.
There’s some dancing around battlefield atrocities, with the doc taking the very safe overall perspective that mostly our soldiers were fighting a bad war as honorably as they could, while the leadership failed them. That gives a couple soldiers cover to recount second-hand stories of fragging and one the opportunity to express shame about a quid pro quo sexual assault usually “bad things that happened” not “bad things I did.” Very little that’s said feels dangerous, controversial or exposed from our perspective. Put that against the courage of a NVA soldier who asks the interviewer to be careful with the film after admitting that civilians were killed in the aftermath of Hue, something North Vietnam has always denied. That isn’t to say, “Confess to more war crimes, darnit!” but one of the few criticisms of Burns’ prolific and generally astounding body of work is that he doesn’t stray far from a smart, but generally accepted and acceptable, conventional wisdom. In the case of The Vietnam War, the decision not to include historians and scholars among the talking heads means that this conventional wisdom is often delivered, without sourcing, in well-delivered narration by Peter Coyote. Given the potential wealth of subjects and the sheer volume of interviews conducted, I think a few too many gaps are filled by Coyote and the voiceover.
I also think the doc leans too heavily on a soundtrack that’s both absolutely spectacular as a 1960s greatest hits album and often way, way too on-the-nose in pairing music of unrest and revolution with the most obvious and connected imagery. I’d suggest the series either needed a cap on the number of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel tracks or else to use those classics exclusively. Meanwhile, Burns and Novick make sparing use of the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which often works on a stomach-churning, almost subliminal level. Some episodes went by without my even noticing the score and then other sequences were so enhanced by the alien, industrial cacophony that I wished for more of that and fewer sing-along classics.
The predictable soundtrack threatens to make The Vietnam War seem dated, when it’s truly vital and current, a road map for the origin of our polarized nation. We remain in the midst of a war of 15 years with a president regularly threatening military action against an Asian nation that we last went to war with 60-plus years ago. It’s hard to listen to LBJ and Nixon’s taped conversations attempting to delegitimize the media and demonize opposition and not think of where we stand today.
Throughout the series, individual battles and moments are frequently referred to as Vietnam in microcosm, but Burns and Novick’s expansive, rewarding view of the conflict amply illustrates that the war was, itself, America in microcosm.