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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War

“The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Mr. Burns said. “I can’t imagine a better way to help pull out some of the fuel rods that create this radioactive atmosphere than to talk about Vietnam in a calm way.”


Civilians huddling after an attack by South Vietnamese forces in Dong Xoai in 1965.

Horst Faas/Associated Press, via PBS


One of the soldiers whose story was followed in “The Vietnam War.”

Mr. Burns was speaking last month at the small New York office of his production company, Florentine Films, where he and Ms. Novick were pausing amid a barnstorming 30-date tour to promote the film, which will air over two weeks, starting with a Sunday night doubleheader, old-school event-television style. (Binge-watchers can stream it in two gulps, released each weekend during the run.)

In conversation, Mr. Burns is the more expansive of the pair, speaking in eloquent riffs larded with references to Mark Twain, Learned Hand, the Declaration of Independence and the ancient Greek concept of heroism, and floating a favorite analogy comparing filmmaking to boiling down maple syrup. (Florentine’s main base of operations is in Walpole, N.H., population 3,734, where he has lived since the 1970s.)

Ms. Novick, who joined Florentine during postproduction of “The Civil War” and has been Mr. Burns’s co-director on four previous documentaries, including “The War,” their 2007 seven-part series on World War II, tends to speak more plainly.

Asked about the origins of the project, she said they had “been dancing around it for a long time,” but the war still felt too recent, too raw, to tackle.

“It just seemed impossible,” she said. “How could you ever do it?”

In approaching the subject, Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick set some ground rules. No historians or other expert talking heads. No onscreen interviews with polarizing boldfaced names like John Kerry, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and Jane Fonda, or anyone with “an interest in having history break the way they want it to break,” as Mr. Burns put it. (The filmmakers met with Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry for advice early on, and said both were supportive. Some other prominent figures expressed interest in being interviewed, Mr. Burns said, and were politely rebuffed.)

Instead, the 79 onscreen interviews give the ground-up view of the war from the mostly ordinary people who lived through it: American veterans (including former P.O.W.’s), Gold Star mothers, diplomats, intelligence officers, antiwar activists, journalists, Vietcong fighters, North and South Vietnamese army regulars, even a (woman) truck driver from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

The tone is carefully evenhanded. But by the end of Episode 4, which takes the story up to June 1967, things seem to be going so disastrously wrong that viewers may find themselves amazed that there are still six episodes and seven years of carnage — eventually claiming more than 58,000 American and more than three million Vietnamese military and civilian lives — to go.

“It’s like you’re driving fast down a highway and the sign says, ‘Bridge out 3 miles,’ and you keep going,” Mr. Burns said. “And then another sign says ‘Bridge out, stop.’ You break through the barrier — wow, isn’t this fun! — and then you see another sign: Bridge out, bridge out!”

It’s a view of the war as careening disaster that may be more widely accepted than it was in the 1980s, when conservative outcry over Stanley Karnow’s 13-hour “Vietnam: A Television History,” also shown on PBS, led some stations to air an hourlong rebuttal, narrated by Charlton Heston.

Mr. Burns, in addition to including a range of perspectives in the film, said he had deliberately sought financial support from “across the spectrum,” with sponsors including the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and David H. Koch.

“That’s a way of telling people ‘You can re-sheath your knives,’” he said.

That may be wishful thinking. Some critics from the left have already begun picking apart its supposed overreliance on military interviewees; its “American bias”; its statement, in the prologue, that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people.”


College students in Boston marching against the war in 1965.

Frank C. Curtin/Associated Press, via PBS


Demonstrators in 1970 gathered in favor of the war.

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos, via PBS

John Musgrave, a Marine combat veteran from Baldwin City, Mo., who appears in the film, said he had heard from veterans of varying political stripes who had already decided they were against the film.

“The way we were treated after the war made us pretty sensitive, but I tell them, ‘Man, just watch it,’” Mr. Musgrave said. “The film just tells the historical story and the personal story of the war. I didn’t get the impression there’s any ax to grind.”

There are scenes covering 25 battles, 10 of which are examined from multiple perspectives, from the battle of Hue, during the 1968 Tet offensive, and the carnage at Hamburger Hill to pivotal but less-remembered (by Americans, at least) early confrontations at places like Ap Bac and Binh Gia.

While the people interviewed hold a range of views about the war, the filmmakers avoid what-ifs or might-have-beens, and don’t engage continuing debates over whether the war was winnable.

Not that there aren’t disagreements on screen, just as there were among the project’s advisers, who included leading scholars. Every word of the script, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward, was carefully weighed. And perhaps none were as carefully debated as that opening narration, which describes the war as ending in “failure” (not “defeat,” Mr. Burns noted, though he used the word himself).

“I think we probably spent six months on the word ‘failure,’ talking about it, letting our consultants weigh in, watching them argue,” Mr. Burns said.

As for “begun in good faith,” Mr. Burns said he stands by those words, which he said reflect the intentions of those who fought the war, even if they are perhaps “too generous” to our leaders.

“I felt holding onto that was important,” he said. “I think the overwhelming sense of those in our film who fought, whether they’re still true believers or had their minds changed or knew it was wrong from the beginning, was that they really felt that way at the time.”


From left, the cinematographer Buddy Squires, the production assistant Dinh Duc Thanh, the director Lynn Novick, the producer Sarah Botstein and the co-producer Ho Dang Hoa film at the Truong Son Military Cemetery in Vietnam.

Jared Ames, via PBS

The film’s center of moral gravity is ordinary soldiers, whose sacrifice and loyalty to one another are repeatedly contrasted with the political machinations of the powerful, on both sides. The filmmakers dig into new scholarship detailing how Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s president, was sometimes sidelined by Le Duan, the hard-liner party secretary who pushed for more aggressive, often disastrously costly military strategy.

And they make devastating use of secret White House tapes to show how Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Mr. Kissinger and others maneuvered to conceal the full truth about the war from the public and avoid a political reckoning.

Not that the film highlights the point with flaming arrows. “It’s very reductive to say ‘They lied, they lied,’” Ms. Novick said. “That’s true, but what we really want to do is show what was really going on.”

The film’s researchers gathered more than 24,000 photographs and scoured some 1,500 hours of archival footage, including little-seen material from Vietnamese archives. But some of the most powerful visuals lie in the waves of conflicted emotion crossing the faces of interview subjects like a Gold Star mother recalling her son’s anti-Communist idealism, or Mr. Musgrave, whose personal evolution, which unfolds over several episodes, provides some of the film’s most memorably intimate moments.

“I sometimes said my job was making grown men cry,” Ms. Novick said. “But no one ever called up afterward to say they were sorry they did it.”

Ms. Novick and Sarah Botstein, a producer, made three trips to Vietnam to find and interview veterans about their experiences. (The entire film will be available for streaming with Vietnamese subtitles, and Ms. Novick returned to Vietnam last month to hold screenings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the audience included members of the press.)

Some spoke of a reconsideration of the human costs of the war. Others openly, if gingerly, contradicted Hanoi’s official narrative, which holds that it was a noble national liberation struggle, period, with all atrocities committed by the other side.

During the sequence about the battle of Hue, two North Vietnamese acknowledge the massacre of some 2,800 pro-Saigon South Vietnamese, including innocent civilians — a taboo subject in Vietnam. “Please be careful making your film, because I could get in trouble,” one army veteran says.

Duong Van Mai Elliott, the daughter of a former French colonial official who had family on both sides of the conflict, and who appears in the film, said she was “floored” by that moment.

Hanoi “has never admitted” killing innocent people, Ms. Elliott, who now lives in Claremont, Calif., said in a telephone interview. That the filmmakers “were able to get them to speak so candidly, at some risk to themselves, is incredible.” (That the killings were either fabricated, or had been spontaneous rather than orchestrated, also “became nearly an article of faith among some antiwar protesters,” Mr. Ward writes in the film’s companion volume.)

The film deals bluntly, if also carefully, with the My Lai massacre and other atrocities by Americans. Some veterans interviewed on screen recall things they witnessed, or participated in, that walk right up to the line of morality and legality.

“You can see the wheels turning: Should I say it?” Ms. Novick said, recalling those interviews. “But they want the world to understand what war is like, and so do we.”

Mr. Burns said the film takes an “equal opportunity” approach to the inhumanity of the war. It’s the kind of resolutely centrist balance that may not sit well with partisan viewers, but so be it.

“Today, we suffer from too much certainty,” he said. “I like the middle, the uncertainty of things. I think that’s where all the progress, all the healing, takes place.”

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