Tele­vi­sion

THE MOST MIS­UN­DER­STOOD AMER­I­CAN WAR GETS KEN BURN ED IN A 10 PART DOC­U­MEN­TARY

Newsweek International - - NEWS - BY RYAN BORT @ryan­bort

Ken Burns goes in depth into

The Viet­nam War; a re­view of

Top of the Lake: China Girl

DOC­U­MEN­TARY lm­mak­ers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are es­sen­tially de­tec­tives, ex­pos­ing new lay­ers of en­trenched facts about facets of Amer­i­can his­tory, whether it’s the Civil War, World War II, jazz, Pro­hi­bi­tion or base­ball. Their latest lm—a typ­i­cally ex­haus­tive 10-part, 18-hour in­quiry into the Viet­nam War, writ­ten by Geo rey Ward—turned out to be the most challenging project of their ca­reers, in­volv­ing 100 in­ter­views over a pe­riod of 10 years.

The duo had no way of know­ing when they be­gan the project that their doc­u­men­tary would be re­leased dur­ing the pres­i­dency of Don­ald Trump, whose short, con­tro­ver­sial ten­ure has been com­pared to that of Richard Nixon, ac­cused of es­ca­lat­ing the Viet­nam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. As Burns tells Newsweek, “What if I told you I’d been work­ing on a lm about mass demon­stra­tions against the po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion oc­cur­ring across the coun­try, about a White House in disarray, about a pres­i­dent con­vinced that the press is ly­ing and out to get him, about doc­u­ment drops of classi ed ma­te­rial, about an asym­met­ri­cal war and ac­cu­sa­tions that a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign reached out to a for­eign power at the time of a na­tional elec­tion?”

I’d say, sounds fa­mil­iar. And then ask them some ques­tions.

I’m 30 and, like a lot of my gen­er­a­tion, don’t know much about the Viet­nam War. Why should I care?

BURNS: So much of what we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing to­day—the hy­per­par­ti­san­ship, the di­vi­sions be­tween each other, the in­abil­ity to have a con­ver­sa­tion—is the result of seeds planted dur­ing the Viet­nam War pe­riod.

NOVICK: Peo­ple ask us what any­one un­der 50 knows about this war, and the an­swer is, not much. It’s shock­ing how lit­tle it’s taught in school. It’s also con­tested his­tory, so there’s no one book you can go to to bring out the story you’re try­ing to tell. When we make a lm, we’re try­ing to tell a good story. In a case like this, it’s hard to do. It re­quired a lot of tri­an­gu­la­tion of mul­ti­ple sources for us to put to­gether a nar­ra­tive that makes sense.

How would you char­ac­ter­ize your un­der­stand­ing of Viet­nam be­fore you em­barked on it 10 years ago and now?

BURNS: I don’t rec­og­nize the per­son who started this project. I lived through the 1960s as a kid and a teenager, up to be­ing draft-el­i­gi­ble by 1971. You think you know [about it]. You pos­sess the con­ven­tional wis­dom. [Re­search­ing this], al­most ev­ery­thing I pre­sumed was turned up­side down. Be­cause the war didn’t turn out so well for the United States, we tend to ig­nore it. It’s a very con­tentious topic, which makes it safer not to talk about it. It’s no ac­ci­dent that the rst English you hear in the lm is from a Marine who de­scribes be­ing friends with another cou­ple, and the two wives, af­ter 12 years as friends, learn that their hus­bands had been Marines in Viet­nam, and they hadn’t said a word about it. The Marine said it’s like liv­ing in a fam­ily that had an alcoholic fa­ther. Shhh—you don’t talk about that.

One of the ways this di ers from your other war doc­u­men­taries is the num­ber of pri­mary sources who are still alive. With 100 in­ter­views, how did you de­cide which to in­clude?

We have prob­a­bly a 40-to-1 or 50-to-1 shoot­ing ra­tio—we have an 18-hour nished lm with hun­dreds of hours we haven’t used, that we’re aware of not us­ing. This doc­u­men­tary is not an en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the war. What we wish to do is to tell an epic story with lots of pri­mary and sec­ondary and ter­tiary cameos, and to do it in a fashion in which some sto­ries, like a POW story, will have to stand in for all POW sto­ries. Five Army grunts will have to stand in for the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Army grunts who went into Viet­nam. It’s not that what we didn’t use isn’t good. Some of it is spec­tac­u­lar; it just didn’t

t into that mo­ment.

“THERE IS SOME­THING RIV­ET­ING ABOUT WATCH­ING BAT­TLES; IT’S THE CAR WRECK YOU SLOW DOWN FOR.”

Is there an in­ter­view that stands out?

BURNS: An Army guy, Mike Haney. I found my­self in tears, with him, at the mo­ment of an at­tack. I had a knot in my stom­ach from that anx­i­ety as he made this mo­ment be­come real.

What can pol­i­cy­mak­ers learn from what was hap­pen­ing then?

BURNS: I never think in those terms be­cause I make these lms for every­body. For some strange rea­son, peo­ple have an en­thu­si­asm for war. There is some­thing riv­et­ing about watch­ing bat­tles; it’s the car wreck you slow down for. I just hope the cost of it would give pol­i­cy­mak­ers pause, that it will be a cau­tion­ary tale. That ought to be the only rea­son to in­ves­ti­gate wars—ex­cept to also prove, para­dox­i­cally, that while it brings out the worst in us, it can some­times bring out the very best. I think our lm shows mo­ments of hu­mor and fel­low­ship and courage and great love. I love the idea of love be­ing a byprod­uct of a lm about war.

Part of me is em­bar­rassed by that. Love is a re­ally tough word to say when you’re deal­ing with his­tory and pol­i­tics and war. But I look back at my lms and feel that at the heart of all of them is love.

Are there his­tor­i­cal in­sights that might lend con­text to Amer­ica to­day?

NOVICK: There are many res­o­nances. One of the big ques­tions is, ‘What does it mean to be an Amer­i­can? What does it mean to be a cit­i­zen of a democ­racy?’ That was a big ques­tion be­ing asked dur­ing the Viet­nam War and is cer­tainly an ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant ques­tion right now.

BURNS: Peo­ple make a lot of es­say­is­tic dec­la­ra­tions, and they re­ally go nowhere. Some­times, you say Viet­nam is a neg­a­tive story of how we came apart. But it could also be the story of a demo­cratic peo­ple who say we don’t want to do this any­more. You could look at this mo­ment in our his­tory, and maybe this is a phe­nom­e­nally beau­ti­ful test .... This may be a test of our ul­ti­mate de­vo­tion to the prin­ci­ples on which we were founded.

It’s hard to think of this time as some­thing we’ll look back on with pride in 50 years.

BURNS: In the early years of Franklin Roo­sevelt, in the depths of the De­pres­sion, as many coun­tries were ip­ping to a to­tal­i­tar­ian thing, the ques­tion was, would we also do that? Some­body said to Roo­sevelt that you’re ei­ther go­ing to be the best pres­i­dent or the worst pres­i­dent. He said, if I don’t suc­ceed, I’m go­ing to be the last pres­i­dent. The Viet­nam War de­buts on PBS Septem­ber 17.

+ BAT­TLE LINES: U.S. Marines with sus­pected Viet Cong in the rub­ble of a vil­lage in 1965, the 10th year of the war, with 10 more to go.

HIS­TORY RE­PEATS IT­SELF: Long­time col­lab­o­ra­tors Burns and Novick.

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