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‘The Vietnam War’ Review: Ken Burns’ Exhaustive Conflict Biography Shows How to Learn from History’s Errors

Burns and Lynn Novick's 18-hour documentary series is an incisive investigation of the nature of conflict and the lessons we value after war is waged.

The Vietnam War Ken Burns PBS March

“The Vietnam War”

Associated Press

While spending a career highlighting some of U.S. history’s most notable figures — Jackie Robinson, the Roosevelts, Jack Johnson — Ken Burns has also undercut the idea of the “ordinary American.” Not only finding worthy stories in the lives of titanic men and women who still loom large over the public consciousness, he’s been able to elevate lesser-known individuals from the respective histories of baseball, the Civil War, jazz, and more, showing that those eras and institutions were also shaped by people less often regarded as heroes.

The great equalization of the past is on display once again in Burns’ and co-director Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” a mammoth, 18-hour history told through and by members from both sides of the ill-fated conflict. Journalists and soldiers, government officials and Gold Star families all add to an understanding of Vietnam, presented without varnish or favoritism. A tale for modern audiences, whether or not they were alive to remember evening news bulletins or tide-changing headlines, “The Vietnam War” cannot right the wrongs of history, but it does as much as any biography of the era to comprehend them. Starting from the region’s colonial history and extending through the ramifications of postwar life, Burns and Novick strive for an all-encompassing look at what made the Vietnam War, what sustained it, and the ways it never really ended for many of the soldiers who fought in it.

In the series’ early installments, Burns and Novick mirror the start of the conflict, showing how political instability and a desire to prevent the spread of warring ideologies left the Vietnam War without a definitive starting point, no triumphant first foray and no definable commencement of hostilities. It captures the insidious origins of the conflict while instantly explaining how it was able to persisted year after year.

“The Vietnam War” is recognizable as a Ken Burns property, with trademark pans across striking still photographs and specifically lit interviews with various contributors. But there’s an added sensory aspect to this film that’s jarring when it deviates from those expected visuals, adding a level of urgency to this project that few others of his have had.

The Vietnam War Ken Burns PBS

“The Vietnam War”

For as comprehensive as his history is, “The Vietnam War” also excels at being an immersive experience as well. Rather than exist merely as a thorough-but-passive exercise in American history, Burns and Novick enrich all perspectives on this conflict with a finely calibrated sound design that gives a tiny sense of the sonic horrors that this war visited upon those who were there for it. Overwhelming engine roars and the whirring of individual bullets pulse through the consciousness of this film as much as any piece of archival video footage.

Frequent Burns collaborator Peter Coyote lends his trademark authoritative voice to this series’ narration. Along with Geoffrey Ward’s writing, this consistent explanation of timelines and personal histories helps to provide a sturdy foundation for a multitude of intertwining civilian and combatant destinies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The steady rhythm of this connective narrative tissue mimics the path of the war itself, continuing on even in the face of unspeakable tragedy and senseless loss.

As the soundtrack to a generation, “The Vietnam War” does an effective job of blending the expected popular tracks of the era (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Mustang Sally”) with a haunting, often dissonant score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, with some additional music from the Silk Road Ensemble. Together, they all combine to do what the rest of the series does so well: meld our perception of the actions of a half century ago with the vital emotions they still elicit today.

For subject matter so inextricably linked to the whims of international politics, “The Vietnam War” finds another level of artistic success in removing its analysis from partisan-based finger-pointing. Given the tragic breadth of the war, there’s more insight to be found in how the search for public adulation and approval can override sensible policy decisions, no matter the affiliations of the men making these decisions.

There’s also a subtle touch to the way that “The Vietnam War” holds figures of the future accountable from both sides of the political aisle: in a sequence that highlights trends in enlistment practices, Burns and Novick linger just long enough on photos of two past U.S. presidents, leaving the audience to make their own assumptions about how those individuals’ relationships to this war helped shape the coming generations.

The Vietnam War Ken Burns PBS Protestors

“The Vietnam War”

“The Vietnam War” isn’t blind to the effect that this conflict had on the national psyches of all countries involved. Rather than rely on stock footage of twirling hippies and giant cardboard peace signs, Burns and Novick include thoughtful considerations of how race and class affected not only who fought in the war but who made up the effort to resist its escalation back home. And with each of those montages of SDS rallies and community marches, there’s also time given to how those in combat were affected by the way they were perceived thousands of miles away.

There’s a significant portion of “The Vietnam War” dedicated to the changing measurement of military success. A refrain of these soldiers’ stories, regardless of their allegiances, is that the methods and practices of the past proved ineffective in the face of a changing world. Land covered, troops committed, and tonnage dropped were not able to capture how unwinnable this war quickly became. Rather than relitigate the past and assign specific blame for the war’s darkest hours, Burns and Novick go in search of the mindsets that established body counts as benchmarks and saw annihilation as an effective means of courting favor in unfamiliar lands.

“The Vietnam War” exists as a vibrant portrait of this era in global history because it avoids the reductive us vs. them, good vs. bad, hero vs. enemy dichotomy that helped to fuel the flames of this conflict for so long. It’s a historical investigation that doesn’t exist as a corrective to the mistakes of the past, but its greatest value lies in searching for the context that members of the Defense Department and various media outlets and even some international world leaders failed to grasp. There was never one direct cause. No single solution would have prevented or avoided the bloodshed that continued on for successive decades.

As a piece of documentary filmmaking, “The Vietnam War” doesn’t purport to have answers to every lingering question from the 1960s and ‘70s and beyond. It considers the sacrifices made in the name of a changing objective, remembering those who strove to bring some sense of understanding to an era when ideological showmanship led to the deaths of so many. As the world once again faces uncertain times, “The Vietnam War” challenges an entire nation to examine the sources of its enmity and not repeat catastrophes so recent that those directly affected by it can still lend their voices to the warning.

Grade: A

“The Vietnam War” airs in 10 parts, Sunday-Thursday nights at 8 p.m. through September 28 on PBS

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