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‘The Vietnam War’ review: Ken Burns’ compelling experience is not to be missed

From "The Vietnam War," on PBS, Marines marching

From "The Vietnam War," on PBS, Marines marching in Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1965.  Credit: AP


WHEN | WHERE Sept. 17-21; Sept. 24-28 at 8 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ken Burns (“The Civil War”) and longtime associate Lynn Novick -- both are co-directors and producers of this film -- interviewed some 80 people over the 10-year production span of “The Vietnam War,” their 18-hour-long film. Among them are two Long Islanders: Philip Brady of Port Washington, an adviser to South Vietnamese troops in the early years of the war; and Joan Furey of Port Jefferson, a second lieutenant and nurse attached to the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku.

MY SAY TV’s last major documentary on the war was Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A Television History,” which aired over 13 hours in 1983. A journalist and World War II veteran, Karnow got all that Burns and Novick have sought — the sights, sounds, words and vast, tragic sweep of that war — but at a 10-year remove, he couldn’t avoid a lingering bitterness that hung over every frame. Arriving at the outset of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” “Vietnam” was controversial, and a group led by Charlton Heston got a rebuttal aired on PBS.

At a 44-year remove, and at another especially divided moment, can Burns and Novick avoid the same trap? The final episode is titled “The Weight of Memory,” and over the preceding hours it becomes clear that the weight remains the same now as then. These memories lay dormant, and the pain remains the same.

 But as filmmakers, Burns and Novick share an almost messianic belief in the healing power of television. Catharsis is their goal here, so instead of bitterness, there’s compassion. They never take sides or cast blame. Vietnam was a Herculean miscalculation by well-meaning men and waged by honorable soldiers. Atrocities occurred on both sides, in part abetted by more miscalculations. It’s about as humanistic an approach in the telling as possible.

 They also believe in letting the record speak for itself, and the record is a little less forgiving. In interviews, pejoratives are repeated so often that they eventually become themes: Futility, disillusionment, secrecy, doubt, tragedy. The word “pacification” at first assumes a comic-ironic dimension, then a sinister one. Well-meaning or not, “The Vietnam War” makes clear that some 2 million Vietnamese civilians and more than a million Vietnamese combatants died in the war, while 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives.

For viewers, “Vietnam” is more of an experience — often a grim and remorseless one — than actual TV program. As the hours pass, the gap between subject (the war) and object (you, the viewer) almost seems to close.  The percussive boom of mortar fire rattles around in your head. The thump of helicopter blades fills your ears. The horror and chaos of the battlefield become almost normalized. An ineffable sense of the grind and creep of the war settles in. The sixth episode ends at the close of 1968, then wraps with this: “It would be another seven years and 27,000 American dead before it was over.” That hits with considerable impact too because there are four, long episodes to go.

Nevertheless, the power of “Vietnam” comes with the immersion. This isn’t the sort of series to snack on, buffet-style, then flip over to another channel to check out the new fall premieres. The narrative is methodical and comprehensive, but also lightning fast. Attention must be paid, and is rewarded. Dots are connected that for most of us are remnant memories of some long-ago report on one of the evening news broadcasts. What did happen at the battle of Ia Drang in 1965 and a short time later at Landing Zone Albany? “Vietnam” makes the answer perfectly, chillingly, clear.

 As always, Burns and Novick build their story through the lens of others. You’ll get to know their faces well, and in keeping with “Vietnam’s” avowed 360-degree perspective, not just American ones. Well over a dozen former Viet Cong or members of the army of North Vietnam are interviewed.

 But “Vietnam” is ultimately a deeply felt tribute to the U.S. soldier. Their names and stories fill these hours. Matt Harrison, for example, volunteered for another tour of duty to save his brother from going into battle. At the end of his 13-month stint, Roger Harris boarded a plane filled with dead soldiers and when it came under mortar fire, he thought, “I’m surrounded by good dead Christians, but I’m the sinner and God’s come for me.”

One former combat veteran, Vincent Okamoto, explains here that “the real heroes are the men that died.”

“They had the least to gain . . . [and] yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal, and you ask yourself, how does America produce young men like this?”

 Maybe not cathartic words, but still words to remember as you watch.

BOTTOM LINE A must-watch: The most important TV program of the year.



Sunday “Déjà Vu” — After nearly a century of French colonial rule, Vietnam emerges independent, but divided.

Monday “Riding the Tiger” — President John F. Kennedy and his advisers consider how deeply the U.S. should get involved in South Vietnam, as a communist insurgency and Buddhist protests intensify.

Tuesday “The River Styx” — Fearing Saigon’s collapse, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorizes the bombing of North Vietnam, and sends U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam.

Wednesday “Resolve” — North Vietnamese troops make their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, defying American air power, and in the U.S., the anti-war movement escalates.

Thursday “This Is What We Do” — As casualties mount on both sides, Johnson assures the public that victory is within reach.

Sept. 24 “Things Fall Apart” — Americans begin to doubt Johnson’s promise that victory is near; Johnson decides not to seek re-election.

Sept. 25 “The Veneer of Civilization” — Draft-age Americans wrestle with their choices as Richard Nixon narrowly wins the presidential election.

Sept. 26 “The History of the World” — Nixon begins withdrawing American troops; the invasion of Cambodia sparks large protests.

Sept. 27 “A Disrespectful Loyalty” — Nixon strikes a peace deal with Hanoi that allows American prisoners of war finally to come home to a bitterly divided country.

Sept. 28 “The Weight of Memory” — North Vietnamese troops overtake Saigon with overwhelming force. For the next 40 years, Americans and Vietnamese from all sides search for healing and reconciliation.

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