Ken Burns doc­u­men­tary looks back on di­vi­sive war


Ken Burns has built a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing. In the past two decades, he has helmed some poignant films that take a dif­fer­ent look at sub­jects.

In his lat­est project with Lynn Novick, he takes on the Vietnam War.

The con­flict be­gan in 1954 and be­came a long, costly quag­mire pit­ting the com­mu­nist regime of North Vietnam and its south­ern al­lies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its prin­ci­pal ally, the

United States.

The di­vi­sive war, in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar at home, ended with the with­drawal of U.S. forces in

1973 and the uni­fi­ca­tion of Vietnam un­der Com­mu­nist con­trol two years later.

More than 3 mil­lion peo­ple, in­clud­ing 58,000 Amer­i­cans, died.

The 10-part, 18-hour doc­u­men­tary, “The Vietnam War: A Land­mark Doc­u­men­tary Event by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,” will pre­miere at 7 tonight on New Mex­ico PBS. The first five episodes will air through Thurs­day, Sept. 21. The fi­nal five episodes will air Sept. 24-28.

When Burns started the project more than 10 years ago, he en­vi­sioned telling the story from three per­spec­tives — that of the Amer­i­cans, that of the North Viet­namese and that of the South Viet­namese.

“It was re­ally im­por­tant for us to take on the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives,” Burns says. “When most Amer­i­cans talk about Vietnam, they talk about them­selves.

“It was ob­vi­ous that these mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives were ig­nored in the past. There are plenty of dif­fer­ences in all the cul­tures. We asked the same ques­tions for ev­ery­one.”

Burns says there are 50 Amer­i­can per­spec­tives, as well as 30 Viet­namese.

With the war ending just over 40 years ago, Burns un­der­stood go­ing into the project that it’s still very fresh in Amer­i­cans’ minds.

“This war seems to de­hu­man­ize ev­ery­thing,” he says. “In or­der to

un­der­stand it, you have to see ev­ery­one as hu­man be­ings.”

Dur­ing the process, there were many chal­lenges.

“What part of the project wasn’t chal­leng­ing?” Novick asks. “Be­cause it’s fairly re­cent, it was in­ter­est­ing to take a pe­riod of his­tory that we lived through. Then try­ing to un­pack what we thought we knew and what we didn’t know.”

The film­mak­ing team or­ga­nized all the in­for­ma­tion, and the process be­came emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing.

“Ev­ery war is tragic, and ev­ery time hu­mans kill each other, it’s deeply tragic,” Novick says. “It felt more vis­ceral. And for us, it was gut-wrench­ing. And for peo­ple who lost fam­ily mem­bers or friends, we saw how it tore the fam­ily and the coun­try apart at the same time.”

Novick says she and Burns came into the project think­ing they knew a fair amount about the war.

“We had to start with a blank slate,” she says. “As we were work­ing, new ar­ti­cles and new ma­te­rial and new tapes would sur­face. We were keep­ing up with the news and new rev­e­la­tions, which changed the film. The more things were re­vealed, the more the story rounded out. Twenty years from now, we will prob­a­bly have new in­for­ma­tion. It’s a dif­fi­cult as­pect to think about.”

Burns and Novick are grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to tell the story.

“The Vietnam War was a decade of agony that took the lives of more than 58,000 Amer­i­cans,” Burns says. “Not since the Civil War have we as a coun­try been so torn apart. There wasn’t an Amer­i­can alive then who wasn’t af­fected in some way — from those who fought and sac­ri­ficed in the war, to fam­i­lies of ser­vice mem­bers and POWs, to those who protested the war in open con­flict with their gov­ern­ment and fel­low cit­i­zens. More than 40 years af­ter it ended, we can’t for­get Vietnam, and we are still ar­gu­ing about why it went wrong, who was to blame and whether it was all worth it.”

Novick says the coun­try is still search­ing for some mean­ing in this tragedy.

“Ken and I have tried to shed new light on the war by look­ing at it from the bot­tom up, the top down and from all sides,” Novick says. “In ad­di­tion to dozens of Amer­i­cans who shared their sto­ries, we in­ter­viewed many Viet­namese, on both the win­ning and los­ing sides, and were sur­prised to learn that the war re­mains as painful and un­re­solved for them as it is for us. Within this al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­bly de­struc­tive event, we dis­cov­ered pro­found, uni­ver­sal hu­man truths, as well as un­canny res­o­nances with re­cent events.”

The doc­u­men­tary is scored by Os­car­win­ning composers Trent Reznor and At­ti­cus Ross.


Sol­diers on a search-and-de­stroy op­er­a­tion near Qui Nhon on Jan. 17, 1967.


Col­lege stu­dents march against the war on Oct. 16, 1965, in Bos­ton.


Civil­ians hud­dle to­gether af­ter an at­tack by South Viet­namese forces in Dong Xoai in June 1965.

Ken Burns


South Viet­namese troops fly over the Mekong Delta in 1963.


Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, a re­leased POW, is greeted by his fam­ily at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., on March 17, 1973.

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