One could call Ken Burns a love him or hate him type of director, but that seems to simplify his oeuvre too much. The reason? I can find no haters among Burns audience members. He’s righteously celebrated by critics and viewers alike, and he never places his name on a project that is sub-par or uninteresting.
Put simply, he’s one of the most influential documentarians of all time.
One of his monumental achievements is The Vietnam War, which played on PBS and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. He co-directed the series with Lynn Novick.
Broken into 10 episodes, the TV miniseries covers the Vietnam War from several angles. One only needs to look at the episode titles to see the breadth of their research: “Riding the Tiger,” for example, focuses on the communist insurgency and President John F. Kennedy’s new policy on handling South Vietnam. The war effort begins in earnest in episode three, focusing on Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the most controversial figures of the 1960s. For history buffs who want to know more about McNamara, The Fog of War by Errol Morris is must-see viewing.
The United States military is the focus of the entire series, but especially in episodes five and six. However, Burns and Novick also give a lot of time to the Vietnamese — civilians, military and the leaders in the North and South. The peace effort also receives a lot of airtime, especially toward of the end of the series when President Richard Nixon’s much-maligned policy of expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos is investigated.
Archival video footage and photographs are coupled with voiceovers from those who lived in the era. The filmmaking team also includes songs from the 1960s and early 1970s — perhaps the pinnacle of folk and rock.
Throughout the documentary, there is no effort to interpret or pass judgment. Statements that offer opposing views are placed side by side, and it’s up to the viewers to experience the history as it was happening. Of course, the facts prove that many of the policies out of Washington, D.C., were misguided.
PBS has a helpful website for viewers to go deeper into Burns and Novick’s masterpiece. One interesting feature is the ability to focus on the individuals in each episode. For example, in episode five, titled “This Is What We Do,” the filmmakers tell the story of medic Rion Causey of the 101st Airborne Division, Le Van Cho of the North Vietnamese Army and Eva Jefferson Paterson, an activist against the war effort. These differing viewpoints should provide evidence of the filmmakers’ balance in presenting the subject matter.
The Vietnam War is another bold entry on Burns’ impressive résumé. The 10-part series provides the most in-depth look at the most controversial war of the 20th century. Audiences will learn a lot of information, but, most importantly, they will also think about the parallels to today’s society.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Click here for more information.