Review: Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”
By Maurice Isserman
Say what you will about the Vietnam War, it had a great soundtrack. Feature and documentary filmmakers have, of course, long appreciated this—cue “The End” by the Doors for the unforgettable opening sequence of 1979’s Apocalypse Now, and, about a decade later, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for a long, wet, and ominous combat patrol sequence in HBO’s documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987).
The 1960s bred a generation of musicians with an ear for prophetic gloom, their songs seeming all the more inspired as a backdrop to the unfolding horror in Vietnam. Even a whimsical ditty like the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” took on new and unintentionally sinister meaning (“The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away/Dying to take you away, take you today”) when played over Armed Forces Radio in Saigon in 1967, as reporter Michael Herr reminds us in his own dark masterpiece about the war, Dispatches (1977).
Ken Burns’s twenty-ninth historical documentary, The Vietnam War (2017), co-directed with long-time associate Lynn Novick falls within this tradition of depicting the war. Burns’s work—28 documentaries since his debut with The Brooklyn Bridge in 1981—is usually known for celebrating America’s iconic things (the bridge), pastimes (baseball), places (national parks), and people (Lewis and Clark). He has, of course, tackled wars before—The Civil War series (1990), which made his reputation, and a Second World War series in 2007 (The War). But those are at least considered nationally redemptive wars—for all the death and sacrifice and less-than-perfect worlds that followed when the guns fell silent, the union was preserved, slavery was ended, fascism was defeated, and all under the leadership of men who have since been celebrated as national heroes—Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower.
If Burns tends to gravitate toward lighter topics, the Vietnam War is decidedly not one of them. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to binge-watch the eighteen hours of The Vietnam War. Despite an occasional and, to my ears, strained suggestion that the war was in some ways the product of good intentions gone awry, this series is Burns at his bleakest. Unfortunately, this perspective is applied somewhat indiscriminately, to include antiwar protesters as well as policymakers. . .
Read the complete review here.
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