THE VIETNAM WAR: ‘THE DEFINITIVE STATEMENT’
More than a decade in the making, the 10-part documentary airing on PBS starting Sunday includes interviews with more than 80 individuals — American and Vietnamese. Postmedia columnist Jack Todd, who deserted from the U.S. army in December 1969, reports o
Like some nightmarish, protean beast that refuses to be caged, the Vietnam War comes snarling back at intervals, demanding that we revisit what we thought had been put away forever.
More than 42 years after the fall of Saigon, the most ambitious attempt ever made to capture the story on film is coming to a small screen near you. The Vietnam War, by documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is one of the largest projects in the history of television, a mammoth, 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the war, airing on PBS beginning Sept. 17.
More than a decade in the making, it is an attempt by two of the premier documentary filmmakers of our time to untangle the complex, contentious threads of the war and to make sense of it in two weeks of television.
Through its sheer scope and quality, I suspect, The Vietnam War will become the definitive statement on the conflict, especially for those who haven’t read a great deal of the history. This time, perhaps, we will find a way, through a sublime piece of filmmaking, to reach a kind of peace with the war that tore my generation apart and helped to sow the seeds for the current profound divisions in American political life.
The film includes interviews with more than 80 individuals, American and Vietnamese, who played some role in the conflict — among them some who opposed the war, including one Montreal sportswriter whose words you’re reading now. I had deserted from the U.S. army at Fort Lewis, Wash., in December 1969, arrived in Vancouver in January 1970 and eventually drifted to Montreal.
Novick herself contacted me in the late summer of 2012. Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam vet and by far the best of the American novelists who have taken the war as their subject, had read my book Desertion in the Time of Vietnam (The Taste of Metal in Canada). O’Brien had been interviewed for the documentary and had suggested that she talk with me.
Novick flew to Montreal. We had lunch and a stroll on Mount Royal. It was not an easy decision for me: I thought I had said all I wanted to say about the war and I did not wish to pretend to speak for all the draft dodgers and deserters (now known collectively as war resisters) who came to Canada during the war. But it was a vastly important subject and the filmmakers were the best in the business.
That September, I flew to New York City, where Novick interviewed me in front of the camera in space on 57th Street rented from the Republican Party, of all things. It was a lengthy and sometimes painful session but Novick, a slightly built, soft-spoken dynamo, is the best interviewer I have ever seen and the experience gave me a chance to get a peek at the way Burns and Novick do things.
You never see Novick or Burns or any of their associates on camera during interviews. Watching the documentaries from the Civil War to those on jazz, baseball and prohibition, I had never quite realized there was an interviewer present. There is indeed an interviewer asking questions and Novick’s skill at gently leading her subject through one difficult topic after another is unmatched.
Although they receive joint billing for this documentary and Ken Burns is the recognizable brand, from what I was able to see Novick was very much the driving force behind The Vietnam War. She and Burns have been working together since Novick came aboard as a summer replacement during the making of The Civil War and stayed for the duration.
The Civil War, released in 1990, was a work of pure genius. Burns did away with the painful recreations that have marred many a historical documentary, instead using still photographs and wonderfully written letters to convey the truth about that conflict. Seventeen years later, he and Novick released The War, their documentary on the Second World War, just as they were beginning work on this, the final instalment in what is, in effect, a powerful trilogy on America’s wars.
When we spoke this September, five years after my film session with her, Novick was in the throes of the publicity blitz ahead of first public screening and she confessed that she was feeling a bit exhausted.
“At the same time, it’s exciting for me,” Novick said. “I see this as the culmination of my career. It’s not that for Ken; he’s had many. So far the response has been tremendous but we’re waiting for the firestorm from the right and the left as well. All we ask is that people watch the entire film before forming an opinion.”
With an issue as contentious as the Vietnam War, that may be a big ask. Controversy is inevitable. But Novick and Burns worked very hard to simply tell the story without preaching, believing the story was massive and powerful enough without window dressing.
The hardest part, perhaps, was getting the story down to manageable size for television. Burns himself has compared it to making maple syrup, boiling 40 gallons of sap down to a gallon of syrup. The final proportions are rather more extreme: thousands of hours of film reduced to 18 hours, an infinitely complex war trimmed to a couple of weeks of television. But given that the Vietnam conflict was the first television war, it is altogether fitting that the definitive statement should be made in that medium.
I have had several conversations with Novick about the documentary over the years. She returns again and again to Vietnam, the small, poverty-stricken nation that fought the world’s greatest military power to a standstill. During the long years of filming, Novick was on a virtual commute from New York City to Vietnam, in order to get the Vietnamese side of the story.
When I spoke with her, Novick had just returned from yet another visit to Vietnam. “We had an amazing trip to show the film to some of the people who are in it,” Novick said. “I’m thrilled that it will be streamed in Vietnam with Vietnamese subtitles. We’ve spoken with many people there who say, ‘We don’t know much about the war.’ ”
Altogether, The Vietnam War will be shown in 30 countries initially, including a joint venture between Germany and France that boils her 18-hour film down to nine hours. That version, which Novick feels is too truncated to do the subject justice, will air in French in Quebec.
As of this writing, I have yet to see the film. Novick says that my interview is woven through three or four episodes, the part that will be hardest for me to watch. I will watch it, however: I have read virtually all the quality literature to come from the war (including several stunning Vietnamese novels) and much of the history. It is something of an obsession even now, 46 years after I crossed the border to Canada and a new life.
A few months after the interview in New York in 2012, I received a call from Lt.-Col. Gregory Daddis of the U.S. army, a tank commander during the first Iraq War and a professor of history at the West Point Military Academy in upstate New York. I could hardly believe my ears: Daddis wanted me to talk to the young cadets studying the Vietnam War in one of his classes.
I thought it over and agreed. With some trepidation, I drove to West Point (situated on a lovely bend in the Hudson River, stayed at a stately old hotel, ate in the huge dining room with the cadets, viewed the statues of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. George S. Patton.
The next morning, with Novick’s cameras rolling, I strolled the campus with Daddis, then met with two of his classes back-to-back. The cadets, initially somewhat hostile, were more welcoming after I told them that I had enlisted in Marine Corps officer training at Quantico, Va., and washed out with knee problems from basketball before I turned against the war. After two years of marching and writing against the war, I was drafted into the army as a private and went through basic training before I made the decision to flee to Canada.
We discussed some of the problems I had noted at Fort Lewis during the winter of 1969-70 — haphazard physical training, extremely low morale, draftees going AWOL every other day, officers apparently unwilling or unable to prepare us for possible combat in Vietnam.
In the end it was, if not exactly a love-in, at least a thoughtful and congenial exchange of views. To someone with my memories of the Vietnam-era officer class, the young cadets were a surprisingly diverse and highly intelligent group, with nearly as many women as men in their ranks.
The film of that event at West Point did not make the final 18hour cut for the Vietnam War, but a seven- or eight-minute clip did make the DVD version. As I drove away from West Point that afternoon, I thought of what a curious little addendum this would make to the history of the Vietnam War: the deserter who spoke at West Point.
It’s not often that anything connected with this horrific and unnecessary war has made me smile — but on that day, with West Point in the rear-view mirror, I did.
U.S. service members with a fallen comrade. The Vietnam War, by documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is one of the largest projects in the history of television.
Civilians huddle together after an attack by South Vietnamese forces in Dong Xoai in June 1965. Given that the Vietnam conflict was the first television war, it is fitting that the definitive statement should be made in that medium, Jack Todd writes.
A U.S. soldier with his siblings before leaving for Vietnam in 1965. For the documentary, thousands of hours of film were reduced to 18 hours.