Film­maker Ken Burns turns eye to Viet­nam War

Poignant doc­u­men­tary set to the mu­sic of Bob Dy­lan, a decade in the mak­ing, cov­ers the con­flict from all sides

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MICHAEL E. RUANE The Washington Post

Hal Kush­ner, an Army doc­tor, had been a starv­ing prisoner of war in Viet­nam for weeks when he and his des­per­ate com­rades de­cided to catch and eat the prison com­man­dant’s cat.

They tried to con­ceal their deed but were caught be­fore the meal. Kush­ner was beaten and tied up, and the cat’s car­cass was draped from his neck. Trag­i­cally, he re­called, he and his bud­dies never got to eat the cat.

The scene, as re­lated by Kush­ner, is one of the most poignant in a 10part doc­u­men­tary by film­mak­ers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, “The Viet­nam War,” that is set to air on PBS in Septem­ber.

The film is the most am­bi­tious for Burns, who is renowned for his doc­u­men­taries on the Civil War, jazz, base­ball and the Sec­ond World War, among oth­ers. It cov­ers the war from its gen­e­sis, start­ing af­ter the First World War, and ex­am­ines the cre­ation of the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Memo­rial, which was com­pleted in 1982, and the years be­yond.

Burns and Novick, who are sched­uled to speak at the memo­rial on Mon­day and will be the grand mar­shals in the Memo­rial Day pa­rade, paused on the Mall on Sun­day to talk about the war, the Wall and the film.

The doc­u­men­tary cov­ers the war from all sides, folds in the an­ti­war protests it sparked, and in­cludes the as­sas­si­na­tions, ra­cial un­rest and so­cial di­vi­sions that tor­tured the coun­try in those days. It cov­ers the Amer­i­can mas­sacre of civil­ians at My Lai, and the en­emy’s mas­sacre of civil­ians at Hue; the killing of Amer­i­can stu­dents at Kent State and Jack­son State; and the vet­er­ans who threw away their war medals at a demon­stra­tion against the war out­side the U.S. Capi­tol.

The film dis­cusses the con­tro­ver­sial Agent Orange de­fo­liant, the visit to Hanoi by the ac­tress and an­ti­war ac­tivist Jane Fonda, and the re­lease of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers. It fea­tures, among oth­ers, sol­diers, Marines, nurses, pi­lots, POWs, pro­test­ers, “de­sert­ers,” an­ar­chists, vet­er­ans of the South Viet­namese Army, the Viet Cong and the North Viet­namese army.

An Amer­i­can pi­lot, later the Air Force chief of staff, says the United States was fight­ing on the wrong side. A war pro­tester tear­fully apol­o­gizes for the things she said about those who were fight­ing in Viet­nam. And an Amer­i­can sol­dier says he lost a part of him­self when he beat and stran­gled an en­emy sol­dier while bat­tling hand-to-hand in a tun­nel.

As Burns and Novick sat on a bench Sun­day not far from where peo­ple in T-shirts, ball caps and biker vests walked to­ward the black gran­ite wall of the memo­rial, Burns re­marked, “Hu­man be­ings seem in­ca­pable of avoid­ing wars.”

They and their team worked on the doc­u­men­tary for a decade. They made trips to Viet­nam. Filmed in­ter­views with 100 peo­ple and ex­am­ined 100,000 still pictures and 5,000 hours of archival footage. They got to know the sto­ries of some of the 58,000 vet­er­ans whose lives were claimed by the war and whose names are etched in the wall.

“The Viet­nam War” is set to the mu­sic of Bob Dy­lan, the Bea­tles, Led Zep­pelin, Jimi Hen­drix and Yo Yo Ma, among oth­ers, as well as the sound of ex­plo­sions, screams, ma­chine-gun fire and throb­bing he­li­copter blades.


Di­rec­tor Lynn Novick, left, and di­rec­tor/pro­ducer Ken Burns.

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