Re­view: Doc­u­men­tary is re­quired view­ing.

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL & REGION - By Hank Stuever

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s as­tound­ing and sober­ing 10-episode PBS doc­u­men­tary The Viet­nam War took a decade to re­search, film, edit and ul­ti­mately per­fect. It clocks in at 18 hours — a length as daunt­ing as its sub­ject, yet worth ev­ery sin­gle minute of your time. I’ll go so far as to call it re­quired view­ing, be­fore you watch any­thing else on TV that will come (and prob­a­bly go) this fall sea­son, es­pe­cially all those new fic­tional dra­mas that cel­e­brate spe­cial-ops teams qui­etly tak­ing out Amer­ica’s ter­ror­ist en­e­mies with lit­tle muss and no fuss.

As an ac­count of both the war and its po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural lega­cies, The Viet­nam War is about as com­plete and even­handed as it could pos­si­bly get, which, of course, means it won’t please ev­ery­one. There’s also the on­go­ing prob­lem of our cor­roded at­ten­tion spans and in­creas­ing in­abil­ity to sep­a­rate fact from opin­ions or lies. This makes The Viet­nam War even more valu­able right now. Do your best to stay with it — an episode here, an­other episode later — and open both your heart and your mind. This is the real stuff.

Even now, as we still elect lead­ers who are old enough to need to ex­plain their where­abouts in the Viet­nam years (as a young man, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­port­edly re­ceived mul­ti­ple de­fer­ments, in­clud­ing one for bone spurs in one of his feet), the sub­ject re­mains an ar­gu­men­ta­tive, open fis­sure in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety — a “war be­gun in se­crecy [in the 1940s],” in­tones the film’s nar­ra­tor, Peter Coy­ote. “It ended 30 years later in fail­ure, wit­nessed by the en­tire world.” The na­tion’s re­la­tion­ship to the war is “like liv­ing in a fam­ily with an al­co­holic fa­ther,” ob­serves Marine vet­eran Karl Mar­lantes.

Al­though our pre­ferred means for rip­ping into one an­other th­ese days lean heav­ily on the Civil War (the sub­ject of Burns’ 1990 doc­u­men­tary, which re­mains his defin­ing mas­ter­piece), a great deal of our na­tional anx­i­ety in 2017 fol­lows a straight line from the 1960s and early ’70s. Burns and Novick’s film doesn’t come out and say so in a blunt way, but you’d be a fool not to pick up on the echoes.

The Viet­nam War is never truly over (and at times it will feel to a viewer like The Viet­nam War is never over, either), but, as Bao Ninh, a writer who fought for the com­mu­nist North Viet­namese army, thought­fully ob­serves in the film’s open­ing mo­ments: “It has been 40 years. … In war, no one wins or loses. There is only de­struc­tion. Only those who have never fought like to ar­gue about who won and who lost.”

In that spirit, The Viet­nam War is a mighty at­tempt to get one’s arms around the whole hideous, tan­gled his­tory of it — per­haps with a sense that it can be fin­ished, or at least con­verted to the past, de­spite its abil­ity to cling to the present.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing The Viet­nam War in­cludes ter­ror, hor­ror, dis­be­lief, dis­cov­ery, dis­gust, marvel, pride, am­biva­lence and tears. You’ll lose count of how many times you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor — even when the facts ring vaguely fa­mil­iar.

“We thought we were the ex­cep­tions to his­tory — the Amer­i­cans,” says jour­nal­ist Neil Shee­han, whose 1971 re­port­ing for of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers helped a na­tion com­pre­hend the decades of de­cep­tion and delu­sion that fed the war. “His­tory didn’t ap­ply to us. We could never fight a bad war, we could never rep­re­sent the wrong cause — we were Amer­i­cans. [Viet­nam] proved that we were not an ex­cep­tion to his­tory.”

Some view­ers will re­mem­ber the war like it was yes­ter­day. Those of us who came later ab­sorbed its many last­ing lessons, sounds and im­ages: Ed­die Adams’ photo of South Viet­nam’s na­tional po­lice chief shoot­ing a Viet Cong cap­tain point-blank in the head; Nick Ut’s photo of the naked girl burned by Na­palm run­ning down a paved road in search of re­lief; Amer­i­can teenager Mary Ann Vec­chio kneel­ing over the body of Jef­frey Miller, a Kent State stu­dent shot dead by the Ohio Na­tional Guard. Young or old, view­ers will prob­a­bly find a wealth of new in­sight here, as well as the thing Burns, Novick and their team have al­ways done best: con­text.

What’s most strik­ing — im­me­di­ately and through­out — is the film­mak­ers’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to find people and sto­ries that il­lus­trate the war from both sides. There are nu­mer­ous, deeply per­sonal in­ter­views with men and women who fought in the North Viet­namese army or the Viet Cong, those who fought in South Viet­namese forces, and other cit­i­zens. Their mem­o­ries and hu­man­ity sup­ply a miss­ing piece in our usual nar­ra­tive of the war — even in up­set­ting mo­ments, such as when North­ern veter­ans gloat about how “tall and slow” Amer­i­can sol­diers were and how easy they were to track and kill. (They left trails of cig­a­rette butts ev­ery­where, one North Viet­namese vet­eran ex­plains in Episode 5. They were easy to pick off in the field be­cause of their sworn duty not to leave be­hind their wounded or dead, ob­serves an­other.)

If, like me, your ba­sic work­ing knowl­edge of the Viet­nam War is largely based on Amer­i­can cinema (Apoca­lypse Now, Com­ing Home, The Deer Hunter, Pla­toon, Good Morn­ing, Viet­nam etc.), then the ac­tual North and South Viet­namese people have al­ways been name­less ex­tras play­ing the en­emy or sus­pi­cious by­standers, re­ferred to by U.S. sol­diers only by nick­names and slurs. That sort of de­hu­man­iz­ing was an es­sen­tial ex­pe­ri­ence for Amer­i­can sol­diers.

“My ha­tred for them was pure. Pure,” re­calls John Mus­grave, a Marine who was sta­tioned close to the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone be­tween North and South Viet­nam grue­somely nick­named the Dead Marine Zone. “I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, ‘I will never kill an­other hu­man be­ing as long as I’m in Viet­nam. How­ever, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I’ll wax as many dinks as I can find. I’ll smoke as many zips as I can find — but I ain’t gonna kill any­body. You know, turn a sub­ject into an ob­ject. It’s Racism 101.”

That’s not all we hear from Mus­grave, how­ever. Al­though most people think of the cam­era pan­ning across old pho­to­graphs when some­one says “the Ken Burns style,” what most dis­tin­guishes his films is a com­mit­ment to find the half-dozen or so small sto­ries that speak to the epic qual­ity of his­tory, whether trac­ing an Up­state New York fam­ily who lost their son and brother, Army Pfc. Den­ton “Mo­gie” Crocker Jr., in 1966, up to the mo­ment in the fi­nal episode when his kid sis­ter, Carol, first vis­ited Maya Lin’s ef­fec­tive Viet­nam Veter­ans Memorial in Wash­ing­ton; or in the story of Viet Cong sol­dier Nguyen Thanh Tung, who lost all eight of her broth­ers in the war, be­gin­ning in the 1950s, and then lost both her sons in on­go­ing skir­mishes in 1975.

And though PBS and the film­mak­ers hinted that The Viet­nam War would be a no­tice­able de­par­ture in form and for­mat, it’s some­how a re­lief to see that it’s not. There are ap­pro­pri­ate stylis­tic touches that ex­press a ’60s-level anx­i­ety along with im­pres­sive con­trasts in im­agery. There is am­ple use of the end­less (if stom­ach-turn­ing) hours of taped Oval Of­fice phone calls from the Lyn­don B. John­son and Richard M. Nixon years in which both pres­i­dents played cyn­i­cally and cal­lously with the lives of thou­sands.

The Viet­nam War era comes with its own ready-made sound­track of rock, pop and soul hits of the day — the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shel­ter” has a way of ap­pear­ing just where you think it might — but to this, Burns and Novick have smartly added the sounds of Viet­namese folk songs by the Silk Road Ensem­ble and Yo-Yo Ma, as well as an un­set­tlingly mem­o­rable score from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his col­lab­o­ra­tor, At­ti­cus Ross. Reznor and Ross’ mu­sic lends The Viet­nam War a needed, metal­lic taste of ten­sion and raw nerves.

We fol­low John Mus­grave from his ide­al­is­tic youth and de­ci­sion to vol­un­teer in the Marines and fight in Viet­nam and through his har­row­ing duty. Then we fol­low him home, down into a pit of de­spair, and con­tinue, in later episodes about the protest move­ment, as he be­gins to view the war dif­fer­ently and joins other veter­ans who toss their medals in protest onto the Capi­tol steps. What Burns and Novick prove yet again is the cathar­sis that can be found in telling our sto­ries to one an­other — and the ab­so­lute value in get­ting th­ese sto­ries right.

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