‘Vietnam War’ long, literate, lasting epic
Revisiting the Vietnam War for 18 hours represents a huge challenge. But viewers who sign on for PBS’ “The Vietnam War” will witness a thoughtful documentary that bypasses well-worn ideological ruts and gives today’s polarization valuable context.
“The Vietnam War,” airing today through Thursday this week and next, comes from Ken Burns (“The Civil War”) and Lynn Novick. Although they like to go big, they find meaning in individual stories about the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.
Two of the most memorable focus on Private First Class Denton Winslow “Mogie” Crocker Jr., killed at 19 in 1966, and Hal Kushner, an Army doctor who was a prisoner of war for 5 and a half years.
The filmmakers stitch together the many stories in an epic tapes-
try, using Geoffrey Ward’s literate script as a framework. Veteran/ authors Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo and Karl Marlantes are among the dozens of speakers who share their stories and offer cogent insights. “Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons,” O’Brien says.
There are speakers who fought for South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. They, too, supply wrenching stories about loss and despair.
“The Vietnam War” expertly mixes a visual history (maps, photographs and news footage) with vintage rock songs and haunting new music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
The series explores presidential decisions made secretly, stupidly and arrogantly. Private recordings chart Lyndon Johnson’s fumbling and Richard Nixon’s deception. In North Vietnam, Le Duan — not Ho Chi Minh — was the real power and one whose hubris was costly. South Vietnam was plagued by corrupt, autocratic leaders.
The series prizes everyday people. It salutes the gallantry of U.S. servicepeople despite the government’s errors, lies, coverups and obsession with kill ratios.
The poignant final part examines the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, once controversial and now beloved. The PBS series is like that landmark: challenging, eloquent, deeply moving.
Eighteen hours is daunting, but also time well spent in understanding disastrous paths taken,
Hal Boedeker The TV Guy