Review: Ken Burns' 'The Vietnam War'

Sep 15, 2017
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Vietnam War had a profound effect on this country. More than 58,000 American lives were lost. And the war redefined how America saw itself. Now, documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have made a 10-part, 18-hour series that examines this pivotal time. It premieres this Sunday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans got a sneak peek.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The first thing you notice is that PBS's "The Vietnam War" starts like no Ken Burns film you've seen before.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The enemy is no longer closer to victory.

DEGGANS: A score co-written by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor throbs in the background while the film presents classic footage from the war run backwards. Flames leap from a village's hut back into a flamethrower. Rockets fly back into a helicopter launcher. It's a sign, once you hear the familiar tones of narrator Peter Coyote, that this film will take Burns and Novick's classic documentary style and turn it upside down to tell the story of a war that turned America upside down.

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PETER COYOTE: (As narrator) For those Americans who fought in it, and for those who fought against it back home, the Vietnam War was a decade of agony, the most divisive period since the Civil War.

DEGGANS: This expansive documentary, which lasts longer than entire seasons of some popular TV shows, begins with early efforts by the Vietnamese to resist French colonial rule and foreshadows the cultural misunderstandings and Cold War pressure that will lead America to support the South Vietnamese against the Communist-run government in the North. Pullitzer Prize-Winning war correspondent Neil Sheehan described the thinking early in the war.

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NEIL SHEEHAN: I really believed in all the ideology of the Cold War, that if we lost South Vietnam, the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to the Communists.

DEGGANS: The first episode leapfrogs between detailing Vietnam's geopolitical struggles and the stories of average people who lived that history. Karl Marlantes, a Marine who served in Vietnam in 1969, recalled how he was friends with another man for more than a decade before their wives discovered they both fought in the war.

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KARL MARLANTES: It was so divisive. And it's like living in a family with an alcoholic father. Shh (ph), we don't talk about that. Our country did that with Vietnam. It's only been very recently that, you know, the baby boomers are finally starting to say, what happened? What happened?

DEGGANS: Of course, there have been other films, books and movies on the war, but Burns and Novick reach beyond simple narratives to speak with former Vietnamese troops, their relatives and some former officials from Vietnam. One former North Vietnamese soldier named Bolton noted even Vietnamese soldiers don't like to speak on the war.

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BAO NIHN: (Speaking Vietnamese).

DEGGANS: "In war, no one wins or loses," he says, "there's only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won or lost." The film shows U.S. officials who don't understand the country drawn into a deepening quagmire. It's tough not to think of more recent struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. And when the film plays tapes of President Lyndon Baines Johnson privately expressing doubts about success in Vietnam he suppressed publicly...

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LYNDON B. JOHNSON: It looks like to me we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don't see what we could ever hope to get out of there with once we're committed.

DEGGANS: ...The current debate over discussing details about troops in Afghanistan comes to mind. PBS's "The Vietnam War" is another masterpiece by Burns and Novick. It's powerful proof of something Burns once said - history doesn't repeat itself, but human nature never changes. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO VIETNAM")

JOHNNIE WRIGHT: (Singing) Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.