Ken Burns' 'Vietnam' is epic, but don't expect an impact like 'The Civil War'

Ken Burns has created another epic historical documentary in "The Vietnam War," a 10-part, 18-hour series on America's catastrophic war in Southeast Asia.

This PBS production, which premieres Sept. 17, has all the Burns signature elements: stunningly eloquent still photographs, music that instantly transports you to another time and place, deep research, evocative archival film, powerful testimony from diverse witnesses to events, rich analysis from talking heads and narration that sounds like poetry, with virtually every word weighed and measured for truth and power.


And yet, for all of that excellence, I fear this film is not going to achieve the goal laid out for it by PBS: "to spark a national discussion about the issues raised in the series," as Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for the Public Broadcasting Service, described it in a release.

"The Civil War," which made Burns a pop culture star when it debuted in 1990, did inspire a national conversation. After its second night on the air, it seemed like everyone in the media, if not the country, was talking about nothing else but the letters of Civil War soldiers read in the documentary and the plaintive music that dominated a heart-wrenching sound track. Remember Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell" melody?


But in the 27 years since "The Civil War," the media landscape and American society have changed in ways that make a national conversation about any cultural production seem impossible. It is not just the fragmentation of the media landscape that's to blame; the profound fissures in American life have driven us into ideological silos where we make snap decisions about the politics of a film or TV show and then tune in or out based on whether we think we will agree with its viewpoint.

This is especially true with controversial topics. And this is one very controversial piece of our national past.

There are generational divides, too, working against a national conversation. Vietnam is the baby boomer war, and if there is one thing subsequent generations seem sick of hearing, it's baby boomers talking about how great their generational journey is. Burns, 64, is a baby boomer who, in the several interviews and conversations we've had over the past quarter-century, has been very clear about his progressive politics.

I appreciate his candor, but I suspect those political and generational factors will cause some viewers not to give "The Vietnam War" a chance.

And then there's the timing of the premiere. How can a film about a war that ended for America in 1975 possibly compete with the cacophony of conversation surrounding the most unconventional president in American history? As fascinating and illuminating as Burns makes history, it cannot compete with the chaos and anxiety of our national political life with Trump today, particularly with the cable news channels stirring the pot.

So forget the national conversation talk coming out of PBS. Just give "The Vietnam War" whatever proportion of your time that works for you in these on-demand days. The rewards of this meticulously crafted production are enormous, and the film will always be there for binge viewing later.

The prelude to Episode One opens on the sound of helicopter blades. The beat of those choppers are at the heart of the documentary's soundtrack. Think "Apocalypse Now," but whereas that 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film overwhelmed the ear with their sound, Burns and Lynn Novick, who shares directing and producing credit on the film, layer the soundtrack with far more subtlety, like a musician massaging the notes of these chopper blades to match the mood and message of the images and words on the screen.

"America's involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure witnessed by the entire world," narrator Peter Coyote begins, setting a rhythm to the narration that is as sure and steady as a metronome.


Underneath Coyote's narration, the helicopter sounds are replaced by Bob Dylan singing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," with its themes of lost innocence, Old Testament punishment and more darkness ahead.

"For those Americans who fought in it and those who fought against it back home, as well as those who merely glimpsed it on the evening news, the Vietnam War was a decade of agony, the most divisive period since the Civil War," Coyote intones. "Vietnam seemed to call everything into question: the value of honor and gallantry, the qualities of cruelty and mercy, the candor of the American government and what it means to be a patriot. And those who lived through it have never been able to erase its memory, have never stopped arguing about what really happened, why everything went so badly wrong, who was to blame and whether it was all worth it."

That's the writing of Geoffrey C. Ward, like Novick, another longtime Burns collaborator. And if it's not poetry, it's close enough for me in a TV production.

No matter how much you think you know about Vietnam, you will find new information in this film. I have shelves of books on Vietnam, and yet every 15 minutes, it seemed, I discovered something I didn't know.

Take Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader President Lyndon B. Johnson was so obsessed with during the war. I always thought of Ho as this ascetic, doctrinaire Communist, living for a time in a cave in the mountains — a leader from another era, certainly not the go-go 1960s.

But, in the testimony of a former member of the North Vietnamese Army, Ho was as image-conscious as Presidents John F. Kennedy or Johnson and carefully crafted his public persona to appeal to the mainstream values of his country.


"Ho Chi Minh knew that the Vietnamese respect the elderly, so he grew a beard to look older," Nguyen Ngoc says in the film.

"A long beard, like this," he adds, pulling down from his chin and gently laughing to suggest the stringy beard Ho wore.

"He also referred to himself as Uncle with everyone," Ngoc says. "He always used simple language. He purposefully created a very humble image. He was very shrewd at communicating with the people."

And for each statement, Burns and Novick have videotape or still photographs showing Ho tilling the soil alongside workers, walking among people in the countryside and talking to small and large groups.

And while I thought it was all about Ho, the film stresses the importance of Le Duan, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1960 to '86, who was far more militant than Ho. By 1964, he, not Ho, was the driving force in going toe to toe with the United States.

I also thought I knew all the details of the fierce attack launched by Johnson's White House on CBS News and correspondent Morley Safer following his report on Marines torching the village of Cam Ne in 1965. But I was unaware of this phone call from Johnson to then CBS President Frank Stanton the morning after report aired.


"Hello, Frank, this is your president," Johnson said at the start of a call, according to the documentary. "Are you trying to [expletive] me?"

And that was only the warmup for the White House attacks on CBS as the Communist Broadcasting Service. It was an early version of the down-and-dirty attacks on the press now used by Trump.

Plenty of history is told from the point of view of non-elites as well. The film sensitively tracks a young man from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., from his burning desire to join the Army in high school to his duty in Vietnam as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. His letters to his family are straight out of "The Civil War."

On another track, Burns and Novick follow a teenager in North Vietnam who leaves her family to work in the jungles on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which carried soldiers and supplies from North Vietnam to the South. She had a copy of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in her backpack, viewers are told. It's the kind of detail that humanizes the war in deeply moving ways.

In 2009, I described Burns as "not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period."

That includes famed feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, I said, "because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves."


I don't know where you go from "greatest documentarian of the day." Greatest documentarian of all time? But after seeing "The Vietnam War," I am so glad that Burns refuses to rest on his laurels.


"The Vietnam War" premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 17 on PBS.