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
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.