This mammoth, 17+ hour documentary about The United States’ war in Vietnam is not perfect; it is a flawed film in at least two ways. But it is essential viewing for anyone alive today who hopes to understand the United States, its role in the world and its continued (seemingly endless) foreign policy mistakes, which have real world consequences for millions of people around the world, every day. Though it may not be Ken Burns’ best work in terms of consistency, it is, I believe, his most important documentary, and I only wish he had been able to make it 20 years earlier, when it was sorely, sorely needed to help prevent the next Vietnam-esque catastrophe of American foreign policy.
This is incredibly long and incredibly depressing, but you really should watch it. Please watch it.
Burns and Novicks’ film has at least three major issues that I want to get out of the way before I write a bit about why I think this is something you owe it to yourself to watch, despite its unrelenting depiction of human failure resulting in misery, cruelty and death.
The three major nitpicks:
- Burns has long been attacked for his myopic focus on Americans and the American point of view in any of his films that have stretched beyond events in the US, particularly in The War. I am actually a pretty big fan of The War, despite its focus on Americans for a couple of reasons:
- Burns has made it clear he is concerned with American history.
- Most fictional American films about World War II present a very particular perspective, one that doesn’t really focus very much on the human suffering of the war.
- The conflict needed a more “ground truth” focused film than the previous TV documentaries about World War II. Burns’ film is hardly the last word in the story, and films can and should be made about other experiences, but I still think his film told a story that hadn’t received enough due, in a way that was refreshing compared to some of the myths about the so-called “greatest generation.” (That’s not to say Burns doesn’t reinforce other myths. He sure as hell does. See the current controversy over The Civil War and Robert E. Lee.)
In The Vietnam War the focus is still very much on Americans but there is much more focus on the Vietnamese than you might expect from a self-professed American historian. There is a clear effort here to include the Vietnamese perspective. I think a film made by Vietnamese filmmakers would also be well worth watching but, as American films about the Vietnam War go, this has a fair enough of their perspective, and Burns, Novick et al. should be commended for that.
- This film is repetitive: some interviews are show multiple times, pictures are used multiple times, and there is sometimes a sense of deja vu when you start up a new episode. That is frustrating but it also serves an important purse, I believe, as there is a distinct repetition both to the foreign policy failures of the various administrations that got the US into Vietnam and continue the war, and to the avoidable foreign policy mistakes of subsequent administrations, so similar to those in Vietnam.
- Finally, there is the use of music. Prior to this film being released, there have been a lot of both fictional and nonfiction programs about the Vietnam War itself, and the era that it was fought in. These programs have used period music but particularly specific period popular music hits. This has been done so much that, at this point, the use of these hits with reference to this era, or the war in particular, is a . And here Burns and Novick often fail, using the most obvious songs they could think of, as everyone else has done since movies and shows have been made about the 1960s. Though there was once resonance for the boomers with this kind of music usage, I wonder if that resonance is gone now that such usage is such a cliche. But, for those of us who did not live through the era, and all we know of it is through pop culture, it is the most contrived and, frankly, annoying part of this film. “For What It’s Worth,” a number of Rolling Stones songs, CCR songs, Beatles songs, and any number of other songs have been used in the same context to death. There is a load of music from that that hasn’t been treated this way. It could have been used instead.
But I regard all of these as relatively minor quibbles given the quality of the film overall.
You can read all the books you want but there is no substitute for images when it comes to the horror of war. Though I have read at least one outstanding book about the Vietnam War, seeing the images – both the pictures and the footage – of the war conveys the sense of tragedy so much greater – and so much better – than any book you’ll ever read. Many of pictures are very hard to look at and the film footage is hard to watch but that is the point. We need to watch stuff like this so we are not disinterested. We need to be emotionally overcome because arguments aren’t going to do it. The saying goes that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. But we do remember this war, just not well enough. It’s these images that are necessary to remember it. Reading a book will not do the human tragedy justice. Reading a book isn’t enough to prevent this from happening again.
But it’s not just the images. The interviews in this film – from American and Vietnamese veterans, from Vietnamese civilians, from draft dodgers and protesters, from family members – are an essential part of our understanding of this. These were real people who died, were wounded, were psychologically damaged by this war. Watching these people speak – some of whom you might not agree with – about their experiences and their feelings, is like nothing else I think I’ve ever seen – save perhaps Shoah – in terms of putting the real, everyday human tragedy on screen, in your face, where it needs to be. Burns and Novick have done us all a huge service by cataloguing even just a few experiences of people involved in the Vietnam War. We could rationalize that the pictures and films are from another time, or we could tell ourselves they’re fictional. But we cannot deny the experiences of these people. They will break your heart, they will make you cry, they will haunt you. But this happened. And it happened because of good intentions.
I can’t emphasize enough that, despite its flaws, these 17+ hours are worth your time. We need th e reminder that wars for peace have costs, real human costs. We need to remember this now as much as ever, as the United States government is once again talking in a language that suggests they will need to commit acts of violence to prevent violence. If only this film had been made 20 years ago, so we could have watched it when the United States decided they needed to invade Iraq to prevent more violence.
Please watch it.