There are fewer eras in American history that are fraught with more controversy and consternation that the Vietnam War. It was a time of social and cultural change – most of it for the worse, in this author’s humble opinion. And even 40 years after it ended, the wounds of that era are still fresh for many.
This time period has also produced classic films that are revered today – Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and the like. This films, for the most part, have a definite slant on the war and it’s a mostly negative one that usually leans left.
This is what made me initially apprehensive about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest documentary series, The Vietnam War. While Burns’ early works are indeed fair and balanced to the subject matter they study (specifically his magnum opus, The Civil War), his more recent films have been glaringly biased to the left, with the worst being 2009’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
I’m very happy to report that The Vietnam War is Burns’ best film in a while. It is a fair and comprehensive look at the war…to a point. Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick have crafted an excellent narrative of the events surrounding the war, providing much-needed context, set-up, and thoughtful analysis – allowing those who lived the war from all sides to have a say. However, the film still has some annoying biases, even though both Burns and Novick assured us there wouldn’t be any.
In The Vietnam War‘s narrative, all sides of the conflict were culpable in some way for its disastrous outcome. I believe the war began with sincere purposes and devolved into a quagmire. This is a reflection of the arrogance on all sides – the arrogance sometimes inherent in humanity itself.
Stuff I Liked
I’ve always been fascinated with American history, but for some reason, I have tended to steer clear of the Vietnam era. The only things I knew I learned from some of those movies, as well as documentaries on television. I really had just a passing interest in it. The whole situation was incredibly complicated and I wanted to devote some serious time and thought to it, which I rarely did until now.
Ken Burns has a gift for capturing the basic narrative of a historical event and make it digestible (albeit in an hours-long format). What Burns and Lynn Novick have done is really boil the Vietnam period down to its essential narrative, making it easy to follow and understand. For the first time in my life, I really understood the war and all the players.
I have nothing but respect for Burns and his team’s ability to comb through thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of footage to create documentaries like The Vietnam War. Some of the photos and film that were shown have never been seen by the public, which was great. Burns makes the still photos come to life with his cinematic panning and close-ups. Combined with the sound effects, it makes these pieces of history so compelling to watch.
The music for The Vietnam War was a definite change from Burn’s past films. It included hits of the era (and I appreciated that these songs were used only when the narrative came into the years in which they were recorded) and captured the mood of the time. The original music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who created the excellent score for The Social Network) was amazing and full of raw emotion. Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble provided some Asian-themed compositions for the Vietnamese sequences, which were also very well done.
The series’ final episode, “The Weight of Memory,” was my favorite. Like the final episode of Burns’ The Civil War, it was a masterful culmination of all the time, turmoil and emotion the audience had been through in the hours preceding. A great emotional catharsis that hit all the right notes and tied off all the narrative’s loose ends before speaking profoundly about the meaning of the war itself.
The sequences in the final episode about the making of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. were particularly moving. It served as the common meeting point for all the stories that had been told – a place of healing and reconciliation.
Hearing the stories of the people who lived the through war throughout the series (soldiers, politicians, spies, bureaucrats, anti-war protestors, Gold Star families, reporters, and more) was quite an experience and really made the film for me. They provided an on-the-ground authenticity which I appreciated. I could see in their eyes that many of them were still haunted by Vietnam. It made the history more emotionally real to me, and respect those veterans even more than I already did.
This brings me to what I liked most about The Vietnam War. It was Burns and Novick’s deliberate effort at fairness. Their intent was to remain as neutral as possible, and it was there, again, for the most part. They interviewed not just Americans, but also the Vietnamese from both North and South. We got to hear their stories and experiences, which brought a whole new dimension to the war few Americans have heard.
Stuff I Didn’t Like
Interestingly, many of my problems with The Vietnam War often mirror the aspects I enjoyed. It’s a frustrating dichotomy.
Though Burns and Novick stated that they tried to remain neutral in their take on the Vietnam War, I saw several instances of bias and peculiar omissions. Most of these were relatively small but annoying. Others were completely aggravating.
The most egregious and inexplicable came during the Nixon years. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library posted a series of articles on their website illustrating some of the leaps in logic the filmmakers took to reach their conclusions about President Nixon’s intentions in Vietnam – selectively editing the taped White House conversations and passing off conjecture and speculation as fact. As a person who loves history and wants to get the facts (no matter which political side comes out looking good), this was very frustrating.
Then there were the interview omissions that were just peculiar. Burns and Novick deliberately decided to not interview Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry for the documentary – even though they both served as advisors on the project and are specifically mentioned in the film. They also chose not to interview former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is still alive and was at the center of the Vietnam policy toward the end of the war. The same went for Jane Fonda, the American actress who shamefully towed the propaganda line for the North Vietnamese.
Burns defended the interview choices by saying that he didn’t want these well-known figures to put their “spin” on events, and pointed out that there are many other people featured throughout the film with very interesting stories. While it is true that all of the people interviewed had amazing stories that deserved to be heard, Burns’ reasoning is intellectually dishonest. If Burns really wanted to be “fair,” he should have let all the people – especially ones featured so prominently as McCain, Kerry, Kissinger, and Fonda – be interviewed about their experiences and let the viewers decide. It’s not like he had any time constraints anyway; it’s an 18-hour series!
It just would have been a much richer experience to see and hear those well-known people’s stories as well. The fact that they are celebrities doesn’t make their eyewitness accounts any less special. Kissinger was actually in the room when the cabinet decisions were being made. McCain’s story of bondage is very compelling, and it would have given him a great forum to tell it before he dies. Kerry could have provided more information for the egregious statements he gave about American soldiers before the Vietnam hearings, which many vets resent. And I would love to hear what kind of excuse Jane Fonda would have given to Burns to account for her actions.
The rest of my qualms with The Vietnam War are purely technical and stylistic.
As I mentioned previously, Ken Burns has an amazing talent of making history come life through cinematic conventions. However, this principle was taken a bit too far in The Vietnam War, making for some strange sequences. The most egregious were the “freak-out” moments that occurred frequently throughout the film. Burns tried to simulate with the camera what the soldiers were going through emotionally during a battle with fast-cuts and volume modulation. It was too much and didn’t work.
The editing of one sequence particularly galled me. During his interview, Vietnam vet Ron Ferrizzi, became very passionate when recalling an encounter with an ignorant reporter. Burns and Buddy Squires’ horror-film-style editing (coupled with Reznor and Ross’ inappropriate musical effects) made Ferrizzi seem crazed and unhinged, as the film quickly cuts back-and-forth between Ferrizzi being calm and excited. It was very disturbing and disrespectful to Mr. Ferrizzi.
I’m a stickler for proper aspect ratios – a habit instilled in me years ago by a very dear friend and fellow film fan. I can’t stand when aspect ratios are cut down to fit screens, and Burns did this in spades for The Vietnam War. All the footage, which would have been shot in the 4:3 “square” ratio was blown up to fit today’s 16:9 anamorphic screens. Burns should have just lived with the black bars on either side of the screen and preserved the true image of the footage.
Peter Coyote is the worst narrator. He’s just awful. Coyote’s unemotional, sanctimonious intonations are the only artistic parts of the film that made it a slog to get through – and one has to listen to him because he’s dispensing all the historical information. Coyote has been narrating Burns and Novick’s films for the last few years, and he makes each one worse.
Actor Keith David, with his smooth, deep timbre, was the best narrator out of all of Burns’ films (The War, Mark Twain, Jazz, Baseball‘s “Tenth Inning”), with David McCullough (The Civil War) coming in at second place. Keith David should have done this film. It would have made all the mistakes and omissions easier to swallow.
Finally, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music was amazing, but in certain places, it seemed overwhelming and/or inappropriate. There were even places where the music overtook the narration.
Stuff to Ponder
“In Vietnam, the Communist Party was triumphant. And they have exceptionalism, too. Their exceptionalism got in their way and our exceptionalism got in our way.”
The above quote from US Marine Tom Vallely’s interview alludes to what I found to be the big thematic throughput for the whole film, and quite possibly the war itself: the perniciousness of arrogance on all sides.
It’s my opinion that the American involvement in Vietnam began with noble intentions (fighting and containing the evils of communism). However, instead of truly understanding the resolve of the enemy and adapting our initial strategy accordingly, the Americans were arrogant in their approach.
They prosecuted the war based on academic strategy (including piles of meaningless, incomprehensible data), not accounting for the unquantifiable human factors, and lack of transparency with the American public. These made the situation spin out of control very quickly, causing the war to draw. The terrible ambivalence and loss of resolve of succeeding administrations, as well as an arrogant congress breaking support promises to the South Vietnamese, made everything worse.
Among the Vietnamese forces themselves, the Southern leadership’s arrogance manifested itself in the form of graft, corruption, and constant coups – too occupied with their own internal squabbling and power-grabs to organize themselves and be a better ally to the Americans. After the South was defeated, the North was arrogant in their victory, unifying the country through force, not reconciliation, and essentially force-feeding the Vietnamese to the evil of communism – which the Vietnamese are still reeling over today.
Finally, the arrogance of the American anti-war movement was made clear from their sometimes-violent clashes with the authorities, along with a preening moral superiority while showing utter disrespect toward the American soldiers coming home from Vietnam. Terrible epithets like “baby killers” were used often to describe the servicemen. Some even brazenly cheered on the enemy, waving the North Vietnamese and Viet-Cong flags, and celebrated the American defeat and the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
Arrogance is discussed throughout the Bible, along with its destructive hold on the human heart. Story after story in Scripture contains arrogant people, and almost all of them eventually fall because due to the consequences of hubris.
One of Jesus’ quintessential traits is His humility. Here was God made human, the perfect being with unlimited power. But he made Himself human so that we knew he understood us. He taught humility at the Sermon o the mount and modeled it countless times, healing and forgiving sins. He humbled Himself before men – even unto death on the cross. In fact, one of the intended bi-products of Jesus’ time on earth and His crucifixion is that we cannot save ourselves from our own sin, so there is no reason to be prideful.
In the Book of Ephesians, Paul writes that “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” We must live our lives in humility and quiet strength because there is really nothing to be prideful about. We are all equally guilty and thank the Lord that He saw fit to show us the way.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me.” Luke 9:23
Part of “denying ourselves” is humbling ourselves before the Lord and before our fellow human beings. We are all sinners, and God made the ultimate sacrifice for us and so that no one could boast! God does not favor anyone over another, nor does He see anyone as superior. We all need to eat some humble pie and be grateful to God for His sacrifice.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
Humility also breeds wisdom and forgiveness. The film showed many interviewees speaking with great candor about the things they did, and the peace and reconciliation they have experienced in the decades since. What was particularly heartening to see at the end of The Vietnam War were many former American soldiers going back to Vietnam and embracing their former enemies as friends.
I was especially touched to see Nancy Biberman, an anti-war activist, become remorseful over the disrespectful actions she took against the American soldiers coming home from Vietnam. Biberman was humble enough to realize that her actions only made the situation worse.
Even the American government itself recently reestablished relations with the current Vietnamese leadership, signaling a move forward for both nations (though I hope we tread lightly with the communist government).
So What I’m Trying to Say is
The Vietnam War is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s best documentary in years. I’m looking forward to owning it on Blu-ray. It is very compelling – an excellent journey into a very complicated time in American history. While it still contains some of the biases that have plagued Burns’ recent works, they are kept to a minimum. They don’t take away from the emotional resonance of the series, and the human lesson learned from the conflict.
The Vietnam War was a lesson in the danger of arrogance. We are all capable of it – no matter where we come from. Arrogance can cause even the strongest nation on earth to forget their purpose, inflict needless damage on an enemy, and even tear their own society apart. The true antidote to arrogance and pride is humility. Through humility comes wisdom and forgiveness, and we could all use a lot more of both.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology in two parts.
The Vietnam War (2017)
PBS / Florentine Films
Narrated by Peter Coyote
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick