Unraveling the quagmire: Burns and Novick deliver legendary 18 hour documentary on the Vietnam War

Illustration by Rachel Obermiller

“The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is an attempt to portray the Vietnam War in all of its complexities. The war cannot be summed up in a two-hour feature length film, nor can it be traced through government cables and TV interviews. Burns and Novick recognize that the people affected by the conflict have emotions — or had emotions.

The celebrated  documentary filmmakers do not let us forget the horrors of the war itself. Before the 18 hour epic begins, before a single person utters how they navigated the chaos and turmoil surrounding the war, the sound of helicopter flight plays over a blank screen. Soon, we are shown footage of soldiers moving through lush landscapes. There is rifle fire. Guns are being reloaded. A soldier screams and the sound of a dive bomber replaces his scream. A body is being evacuated from a jungle warzone. Then, the first interview begins.

Former Marine Karl Marlantes likens talking about his experiences in Vietnam to “living in a family with an alcoholic father Marlantes said. Our country did that with Vietnam.” “It’s only been very recently that, I think, that the baby boomers are finally starting to say, ‘What happened? What happened?’”

The documentary then cuts to iconic moments from the war, playing them backwards, as if to rewind history. Tanks roll backwards, executed bodies stand up again, shockwaves and fireballs return to their origin, a burning draft notice is extinguished by the backward march of time; meanwhile, speeches from former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former presidents Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy and Truman play in the background. This is only the first five minutes, and the viewer is left reeling from the destruction and deceit that the people of the world endured during the conflict.

Burns and Novick worked on “The Vietnam War” for 10 years. The film is unique for its representation of the people involved in the conflict. With 79 interviewees, the documentary delicately weaves the stories of soldiers, guerillas, aid workers, protesters, civil servants and citizens from Vietnam and the U.S. Some famous interviewees include the following: Duong Van Mai, author of “The Sacred Willow,” a family memoir about living in Vietnam; Neil Sheehan, the journalist who published the Pentagon Papers; and Tim O’Brien, author of “The Things they Carried.”

Most of the people interviewed are soldiers or citizens, people whom lived extraordinary lives under violent and divisive conditions. Burns and Novick do an excellent job demonstrating the complexities of war by having the historical narrative focus on the lived experiences of people rather than armchair generals, historians and political theorists.

In order to make a cohesive narrative, writer and PBS documentary expert Geoffrey C. Ward reconciles the many historical interpretations with personal stories, each informing and building off the other. The result is a captivating story that leaves viewers shocked that such corruption and subterfuge plagued all parties involved in the conflict.

While the footage from the battlefield is captivating in all of its digitally remastered glory, the interviews from protesters and soldiers returning home is haunting. The inclusion of the Woolworth’s lunch counter protests, anti-nuclear weapons protests and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations highlight the dissonance on the home front. Viewers are reminded of how divided the country was, and how a previous generation handled the political division.

“The Vietnam War” is a necessary document in the understanding of the American narrative. It is a piece of the puzzle that unpacks the question of what happened. Burns and Novick give people the chance to tell us what happened and how it happened — they expose America’s alcoholic father to the world.

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