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PBS's 'The Vietnam War' Explores Divisive Time in American History

6 Aug, 2017 By: Stephanie Prange

After examining many of the most important chapters in American history, documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick were finally prepared to tackle one of the country’s most divisive periods, the Vietnam War.

“It’s the most important event in the second half of the 20th century for America,” Burns said. “How we are now — good and particularly bad — grew out of our experience in Vietnam. Much of the disunion and lack of civil discourse that we experience today had seeds in that conflict — our suspicion of government, our suspicion of each other, our country being torn in two politically. And it’s our hope in some ways the kind of courageous conversations that we can sponsor around the documentary might invite people back to a more civil posture as they talk to each other about, admittedly, a very difficult time in our history.”

“We’ve known for a long time that you couldn’t understand America without looking at the Vietnam War, but we sort of stayed away from it for many years, feeling it was too recent and when we were finishing our film on the Second World War [in 2006-07] we decided that this was the time to take on Vietnam,” said Novick, who co-directed the project with Burns.

Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War (running time 18 hours) debuts on DVD ($99.99) and Blu-ray Disc ($129.99) Sept. 19 from PBS Distribution, coinciding with its airing on public TV. Bonus footage includes a 45-minute preview program and two pieces on the contemporary lives of two of the participants. The program will also be available for digital download. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, Novick and Burns, The Vietnam War features nearly 100 interviews with participants, including Americans who fought in the war, others who opposed it, and Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides.

“Ken and I both felt we could not make this film and just tell the American point of view,” Novick said. “That’s a mistake that America made getting into this war.”

“Other treatments of Vietnam have conspicuously left out the Vietnamese and so we felt it was really important to interview not only [Americans] but to interview the Viet Cong guerillas that were fighting against them and the North Vietnamese soldiers that had infiltrated South Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese civilians — all of that complemented by our more than 50 Americans from every walk of life and every stripe and every political viewpoint,” Burns said.

While covering their experiences through archival footage, Burns and Novick consciously chose not to interview many of the famous participants in the war, such as John Kerry, John McCain, Jane Fonda and Henry Kissinger, preferring to look at the conflict from the perspective of ordinary people.

“We didn’t interview them because we didn’t want them to try to basically polish their own images or to be revisionists because we knew, because of their fame, they had become somewhat radioactive,” Burns said. “The people in the film, you can look at them and say, ‘Gee they are just like my next-door neighbor or me,’ and you can have a relationship to them.”

The documentary also draws parallels with the doomed French colonial effort in Vietnam.

“Almost everything that happened to the French happened to Americans a decade later,” Burns said.

The Vietnam War features more than 120 popular songs that define the era, including tracks from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell and many others.

“Ken and I decided really early on, before we even started filming, that we wanted to find a way to represent this era culturally and you cannot do that without the music and it’s some of the greatest music of the 20th century,” Novick said.

She credits producer Sarah Botstein for getting the musical artists on board for a modest fee by appealing to posterity.

“This was their formative time in their life and they know that their music is important to that time and to history and they want to be part of the way that that time is remembered,” Novick said.

“We just feel like we died and went to heaven with the music for this series,” Burns said, noting that they were careful not to include a song in the documentary that had not been released in the time covered.

The documentary also includes original music written and recorded by Academy Award-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as new music arranged and performed by Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.

“We took Vietnamese tunes, lullabies and folk songs that would be familiar to anyone north and south and Yo Yo Ma interpreted them and offered even other compositions,” Burns said.

Novick first discovered Reznor and Ross’s work while listening to their score on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She and Burns got them on board.

“We wanted them to represent some of the most complicated human experiences that we’ve ever had to deal with, and they just jumped in with both feet,” she said. “We sent them a list of feelings that we wanted them to evoke … and they just came back with remarkable music.”

What do the co-directors hope viewers take away from The Vietnam War?

“One of the lessons that our country did learn — but also our film reinforces — is that the warriors are not responsible for the war,” Novick said. “It’s the policymakers and the leaders. And during the Vietnam War, those lines got blurred.”

“It’s my hope that, in many ways, if it’s a virus that afflicts us, this is a vaccination, and you get a little bit more of the disease, but it helps you overcome it … that it may be possible to find our way out of the darkness that we are in today,” Burns said. “Now that’s a very big wish, but I hope that it comes true.”

Accompanying the release of the series will be a separate companion book — written by Geoffrey C. Ward, with an introduction by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

About the Author: Stephanie Prange

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