It goes without saying that Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries will be big, classy and impeccably produced. Yet in terms of relevance, “The Vietnam War” might be his most significant undertaking since “The Civil War” – a 10-part, 18-hour look at the conflict and its repercussions – political, cultural, psychological – still being felt and litigated today.
PBS has again provided Burns with a huge canvas, and he has responded by painting a masterpiece, one that distinguishes public television at a moment when it yet again finds itself under siege and facing an existential challenge.
Almost overwhelming in its scope, this detailed history oscillates between the macro and micro, between individual stories of Americans and Vietnamese whose lives were caught in the war and policy makers who, as stated by narrator Peter Coyote, found it “easier to muddle through” than admit a failed policy.
Again working with co-director Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey Ward, Burns explores key events at home and abroad – the Tet offensive, the My Lai Massacre, Kent State, the fall of Saigon – but also has the time to devote to individual battles and encounters that are less well known. All of this is punctuated by the politics of the war, augmented by recorded conversations of Presidents Johnson and Nixon painting a far rosier picture in public than they confessed to in private.
“I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out,” Johnson says, perhaps the signature line in the entire project, except perhaps for former Defense Dept. official Leslie Gelb’s observation that Vietnam became “a piece on a strategic chessboard” whose particulars weren’t understood by those in the U.S. government.
“The Vietnam War” opens by delving into the history of the region, including Vietnam’s time under French rule and the rise of Ho Chi Minh.
Part two then segues to John F. Kennedy, who initiated the conflict, followed by Johnson, who escalated it despite his misgivings, haunted by the specter of Korea and the “domino theory” in the struggle to restrain Communism.
“The Vietnam War” also humanizes what was often a faceless enemy, interviewing former Viet Cong as well as civilians whose lives were turned upside down by the conflict.
What might be most sobering, however, are the ripples from the war still being felt today, from the rise of the anti-war movement to the shadows that have lingered over U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, as the documentary notes, Vietnam upended fundamental notions of patriotism, especially among those to whom the phrase “my country right or wrong” didn’t make sense under the circumstances.
The war “began in secrecy,” Coyote says near the outset. “It ended, 30 years later, in failure” – leaving 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese dead.
Not surprisingly, enormous attention has clearly been paid to the smallest details, including more than 100 songs that play in the background – a veritable soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s, from The Animals’ “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place” as soldiers reminisce to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as people assemble at the Vietnam War memorial wall.
Those who lived through the period should find “The Vietnam War” a highly emotional experience. But even their kids and grandkids should hear and see echoes throughout this epic undertaking, which forges a bridge from America’s past directly to its present.
“The Vietnam War” premieres Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on PBS and will air Sunday through Thursday over successive weeks.