Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War    
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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle the Vietnam War
Sep 18 2017

Ken Burns shot to fame in 1990 with “The Civil War,” which drew record audiences for PBS and jump-started a revival of popular interest in the subject. Nearly three decades and more than 20 documentaries later, he is perhaps the nation’s most trusted historical brand, as much an icon of American-ness as baseball (the subject of his nine-part 1994 documentary) and apple pie (one of the few classic American themes he hasn’t taken on).

There are scenes covering 25 battles, 10 of which are examined from multiple perspectives, from the battle of Hue, during the 1968 Tet offensive, and the carnage at Hamburger Hill to pivotal but less-remembered (by Americans, at least) early confrontations at places like Ap Bac and Binh Gia.

While the people interviewed hold a range of views about the war, the filmmakers avoid what-ifs or might-have-beens, and don’t engage continuing debates over whether the war was winnable.

Not that there aren’t disagreements on screen, just as there were among the project’s advisers, who included leading scholars. Every word of the script, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward, was carefully weighed. And perhaps none were as carefully debated as that opening narration, which describes the war as ending in “failure” (not “defeat,” Mr. Burns noted, though he used the word himself).

“I think we probably spent six months on the word ‘failure,’ talking about it, letting our consultants weigh in, watching them argue,” Mr. Burns said.

As for “begun in good faith,” Mr. Burns said he stands by those words, which he said reflect the intentions of those who fought the war, even if they are perhaps “too generous” to our leaders.

“I felt holding onto that was important,” he said. “I think the overwhelming sense of those in our film who fought, whether they’re still true believers or had their minds changed or knew it was wrong from the beginning, was that they really felt that way at the time.”

The film’s center of moral gravity is ordinary soldiers, whose sacrifice and loyalty to one another are repeatedly contrasted with the political machinations of the powerful, on both sides. The filmmakers dig into new scholarship detailing how Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s president, was sometimes sidelined by Le Duan, the hard-liner party secretary who pushed for more aggressive, often disastrously costly military strategy.

And they make devastating use of secret White House tapes to show how Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Mr. Kissinger and others maneuvered to conceal the full truth about the war from the public and avoid a political reckoning.

Not that the film highlights the point with flaming arrows. “It’s very reductive to say ‘They lied, they lied,’” Ms. Novick said. “That’s true, but what we really want to do is show what was really going on.”

The film’s researchers gathered more than 24,000 photographs and scoured some 1,500 hours of archival footage, including little-seen material from Vietnamese archives. But some of the most powerful visuals lie in the waves of conflicted emotion crossing the faces of interview subjects like a Gold Star mother recalling her son’s anti-Communist idealism, or Mr. Musgrave, whose personal evolution, which unfolds over several episodes, provides some of the film’s most memorably intimate moments.

“I sometimes said my job was making grown men cry,” Ms. Novick said. “But no one ever called up afterward to say they were sorry they did it.”

Ms. Novick and Sarah Botstein, a producer, made three trips to Vietnam to find and interview veterans about their experiences. (The entire film will be available for streaming with Vietnamese subtitles, and Ms. Novick returned to Vietnam last month to hold screenings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the audience included members of the press.)

Some spoke of a reconsideration of the human costs of the war. Others openly, if gingerly, contradicted Hanoi’s official narrative, which holds that it was a noble national liberation struggle, period, with all atrocities committed by the other side.

During the sequence about the battle of Hue, two North Vietnamese acknowledge the massacre of some 2,800 pro-Saigon South Vietnamese, including innocent civilians — a taboo subject in Vietnam. “Please be careful making your film, because I could get in trouble,” one army veteran says.

Duong Van Mai Elliott, the daughter of a former French colonial official who had family on both sides of the conflict, and who appears in the film, said she was “floored” by that moment.

Hanoi “has never admitted” killing innocent people, Ms. Elliott, who now lives in Claremont, Calif., said in a telephone interview. That the filmmakers “were able to get them to speak so candidly, at some risk to themselves, is incredible.” (That the killings were either fabricated, or had been spontaneous rather than orchestrated, also “became nearly an article of faith among some antiwar protesters,” Mr. Ward writes in the film’s companion volume.)

The film deals bluntly, if also carefully, with the My Lai massacre and other atrocities by Americans. Some veterans interviewed on screen recall things they witnessed, or participated in, that walk right up to the line of morality and legality.

“You can see the wheels turning: Should I say it?” Ms. Novick said, recalling those interviews. “But they want the world to understand what war is like, and so do we.”

Mr. Burns said the film takes an “equal opportunity” approach to the inhumanity of the war. It’s the kind of resolutely centrist balance that may not sit well with partisan viewers, but so be it.

“Today, we suffer from too much certainty,” he said. “I like the middle, the uncertainty of things. I think that’s where all the progress, all the healing, takes place.” - NYtimes