How creating an 18-hour documentary 'exploded' Ken Burns' interpretation of the Vietnam War
'The new scholarship is so revelatory that I think it's a whole new Vietnam,' the filmmaker says
It’s easy to take Ken Burns’ trailblazing documentary work for granted: Every few years, the seminal filmmaker, 64, releases another multi-part epic about some facet of American history — baseball, jazz, the national parks — that’s both vividly engaging and academically definitive. And, of course, he releases plenty of shorter docs, like last year’s two-parter about Jackie Robinson. His career is a case study proving quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Even so, The Vietnam War — Burns’ 10-part, 18-hour film that debuts on PBS Sunday — may be his most ambitious project yet. Conceived, created, and directed with his longtime filmmaking partner Lynn Novick, the documentary is a decade in the works and emphasizes a litany of perspectives from both the American and Vietnamese sides of the critical 20th century conflict. And, as Burns tells EW, the film is suited for Vietnam War neophytes and experts alike. “The new scholarship is so revelatory that I think it’s a whole new Vietnam,” Burns says when summarizing his research. “It certainly exploded all my preconceptions — and I lived through it.”
As Burns notes, “there is a certain dynamism to the story of the Vietnam War” that makes this a particularly compelling documentary. “That dynamism comes, unfortunately, from a good deal that’s unresolved and toxic,” he says, citing the era’s “fevered pace.” Burns fused political and military footage with numerous contemporaneous pop songs — and an original soundtrack from Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor (The Social Network, Gone Girl) — for a product that breezes by as much as an 18-hour doc about the Vietnam War can. Adds Burns: “It certainly isn’t homework.”
Read on for EW’s full conversation with Burns.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Vietnam War has been told and retold so many times across so many forms of media. What did you want to address that other tellings may not have?
KEN BURNS: [1983’s]Vietnam: A Television History came out in the first five or six years after the fall of Saigon and didn’t benefit from the perspective that these many decades have given us. The many, many feature films that have ranged from excellent to execrable are all essentially Americans talking about Americans — they’re not dealing with all of the sides in this struggle. What we wanted to do was benefit from the 40-plus years of new scholarship and the willingness of veterans from all sides to speak. To have access to the country and tell not just a top-down story of policy — or failed policy, depending on your point of view — but to do a bottom-up story of the human dimensions of the war. We also felt that the Vietnam War has been so politicized that it’s almost impossible to find out what actually happened during it. The story we’re telling is not devoid of the politics — it’s certainly an important component — but I think it takes its rightful place in relationship to battles that most Americans have never heard of and campaigns and decisions that they were probably not aware were made in their name.
You’ve now done documentaries about three of America’s defining military conflicts. Working on the Vietnam documentary, what similarities between the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam stood out? And, outside of technology, what differences did you notice?
The similarities are stunningly and frighteningly the same. This is what happens when human beings go to war. Bad stuff happens. All three of those wars, particularly the Second World War, which is the biggest cataclysm in human history, document that. But then, of course, there’s lots of differences. One is that we can find redeeming features in the Civil War and the Second World War. We ended slavery and reunited the country, sort of, and we ended fascism and militarism, sort of. But there’s nothing redeeming, at least initially, in Vietnam. That’s a blessing, because the former two wars are smothered in sentimentality and nostalgia. There’s no such danger that Vietnam will ever have that sentimentality and nostalgia attached to it. We’ve seen Hollywood things that can get pretty treacly, from John Wayne on. But for the most part, I think there’s been a sober realism about the horrors of that war. You don’t have to wade through, in the case of the Second World War, the absolute lie that this is a good war. There’s no such thing as a good war. It may have been a necessary war, but it ain’t a good war. That’s some public relations after the fact. The Civil War, too, one of the reasons why it’s so present in our lives is that we permitted the losers to write the narrative.
In one later episode, Vice President Spiro Agnew characterizes dissidents of the administration with rhetoric that wouldn’t sound out of place in 2017. In what ways to do you think the Vietnam War continues to resonate in America?
A good number of the seeds of our disunion and hyperpartisanship today were born in Vietnam. What if I told you I’d been working for 10 years on a film about: massive demonstrations against the current administration that take place all across the country; a White House in disarray obsessed with leaks; a president accusing the media of lying and of making things up; a huge document drop of stolen, classified material into the public sphere that destabilizes things; asymmetrical warfare that confounds the might of the United States military; and accusations that a political campaign reached out during the time of a national election to a foreign power to influence that election. You’d say, “Oh my goodness, these are all contemporary things!” But they’re only a handful of things that are in Vietnam, a film I started in 2006. It reminds you how valuable the past and the study of the past can be, not only to our clearer understanding of those events but to what we’re going through now.
There are many, many lessons of Vietnam. It’s the most important event in American history since the Second World War. It is something that did not turn out very well for the United States, so a lot of people have ignored it and buried their heads in the sand. It’s a source of great anxiety and often anger and bitterness and people find themselves in their own corner, unable to budge. What we tried to do was create an environment with lots of different perspectives honored and coexisting. It’s a very complex picture, but it’s pretty clear that this current round of partisanship in our country today, the lack of civil discourse, has its seeds in the Vietnam War. But when we make these films, we don’t ever think about that stuff. We’re only trying to master the narrative. Believe me, that’s hard enough to do.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote original music for this documentary. Can you tell me about their contributions, as well as the other music in the series?
He and Atticus are among our greatest musical geniuses. We reached out on a lark, thinking no way this would happen, and [Reznor] readily agreed. What Atticus and Trent do is so remarkable. It’s often harsh and anxiety-producing and metallic, angst-ridden, yet [it] resolves melodically and emotionally. That’s a rare genius and we feel so privileged to have that from them. The gut feelings they produce are very similar to what we are hearing from our veterans in our own inherited sense of Vietnam.
We also added Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble playing familiar Vietnamese tunes that everyone, north and south, would’ve known — lullabies, folk songs. Probably as important as those — although I can hardly believe there’s anything more important than a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack — is 120 musical cuts. We wouldn’t have been able to afford 12 of them in a normal situation, but we reached out to the artists and their estates and their labels and their publishers and they said yes. So we have several Beatles songs and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and Miles Davis and Merle Haggard — 120 pieces of the finest music recorded in that decade, and in a decade that is probably distinguished by how much great music was produced. Let’s just say, the soundtrack to this series is killer!