Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are credited with the direction of PBS' new series, The Vietnam War (2017). The show is a diachronic survey of the war in Indochina and its impact on American society and politics, encyclopedic in scope and running in 10 roughly two-hour installments for about 18 hours -- it starts at the beginning and ends at the end. PBS broadcast the show on successive nights, allowing emotionally exhausted viewers respite on the weekend -- the program comes equipped with a call-line number for help if the show triggers acute anxiety in war veterans watching it. No doubt, the program will be universally lauded and there's no benefit in denouncing the show for what it isn't -- although for the record, the show isn't innovative in any way, doesn't present any perspective that has not been argued ad nauseam about the war, and, follows in form, the Ken Burns' well-established and, indeed, well-nigh patented, techniques in putting together a series of this kind: there is the plaintive music on the soundtrack, the letters from soldiers read by actors, the "witnesses" who become stars in their own right as the show progresses -- except for the last episode, where there seems to have been a paucity of well-qualified American witnesses (after all we had betrayed the south Vietnamese and left them to their doom), the show is inflected by powerful performances that achieve a Shakespearian level -- there's really no other way to describe this -- by fantastically photogenic and charismatic eye-witnesses to the events shown in the film. The presence of these "witnesses", who appear in somber, Rembrandt-lit talking-head shots, provides the production with its emotional tone, a sort of Trauerwerk ('mourning work') that is, somber, dignified, and immensely articulate. As is always the case with Burns, the film exists for its writing -- the images, which presumably once had a real meaning, are mostly just background, wallpaper, to the things said on the soundtrack. We have no idea whether the war footage and the still photographs that Burns and Novick pan and zoom and scan has anything to do with the actual historical events described in the narration. The filmmakers recycle remorselessly the famous footage of napalm bursting over targets as viewed from helicopter and there are innumerable shots of anonymous people trudging through anonymous ruins, anonymous troops staggering through ominous landscapes, cannons and mortars being fire, and windrows of corpses -- whether these pictures are in any way correlated to the exact story being told (that is, does every shot shown during the Tet offensive sequence actually show the January 1968 fighting or are these just generic images of mayhem edited together to form a visual "music", a visual accompaniment to the historical narration?) During the first six or so episodes a title buried in the extensive pictorial and music credits tells us that some of the "footage was staged by its original creators." I would like to know what footage, how it was staged, and why. But my broad criticisms of Burns' haphazard and, in my view, disrespectful, use of images is idiosyncratic -- I assume most critics will praise this show lavishly (the estimable David Thomson has already called it "the greatest movie ever made") and it will win every possible award.
And, although I would hesitate to support Thomson's hyperbole, there is no doubt that The Vietnam War is a spectacular, if wholly humorless, achievement. War is always photogenic and the Vietnam conflict contrasted idyllic natural beauty with the most savage and ferocious aspects of human nature. It's all embodied in those aerial shots of napalm strikes -- the napalm is horrifying, but it is also has a ghastly sublimity; it is sublime in the way that Edmund Burke characterized that category of the esthetic -- a terrible beauty that dwarfs human beings and threatens them: to see is to tremble. The Vietnamese are a pretty people and their huts and cities had a quaint, old-fashioned charm and there's a shocking, but intensely dramatic dissonance between the people and places and the war ravaging them. As Coppola showed, helicopter attacks are inherently impressive and there are indelible shots in the series showing huge bombs rolling and sporting in the air like porpoises in the Gulf of Corinth. There's a theory that late capitalism incorporates all other, pre-existing forms of oppression within its fabric -- if we look hard enough today, we can find slaves, indentured servants, gritty working class trade unionists, feudal serfs, and every other kind of economic oppression that one class ever visited upon another class. So similarly, the Vietnam war, as an expression of late Capitalism, somehow embodied every previous war that was ever fought -- there were small platoon actions in dense jungle, full-blown Pickett's charge assaults up the sides of steep hills, huge artillery duels that would have not been out of place at the Somme or Waterloo, air cavalry swooping down like Stonewall Jackson's horsemen, guerilla war, tank assaults, an aerial campaign that dropped more ordinance than was used in World War Two and, therefore, created cityscapes like Dresden and Berlin in 1945 -- there were battles at sea and on rivers, targeted assassinations, murderous reprisals, campaigns with armored weapons assaulting strategic cities and strongholds and innumerable ambushes and skirmishes. People fought with rifles, machetes, huge gyroscopically controlled bombs dropped from B52s at 40,000 feet: people were blown to bits by sophisticated ricjets or had their guts ripped out by sharp bamboo stakes embedded in hidden pits. Every kind of atrocity was committed -- POWs were tortured, civilians slaughtered, ears were cut off as trophies. And these atrocities engendered every possible kind of protest: people debated the war, fought in the streets, peacefully protested or attacked soldiers, and Buddhist monks lit themselves on fire. The list could go on interminably but here is the point -- the Vietnam war was not just a war in Southeast Asia; ultimately it became War itself, War per se, the thing-in-itself in all its manifold manifestations. And this is something that is wonderfully (and horribly) shown by film. Further, this film, which shows us the ultimate War, is wonderfully energized by its soundtrack. Somehow PBS has acquired the rights (presumably on the basis of tax-deductible donations) to just about every important rock and roll song during the era. The film demonstrates not only the war is highly photogenic -- it also shows us that rock and roll achieves its apotheosis, it's best and highest use when it is used to accompany images of chaos and destruction -- even Bob Dylan sounds better when used to illustrate burning buildings and bloody windrows of corpses and scoring helicopter attacks to Gimme Shelter or the Hendrix version of "All along the Watchtower" is transcendent: it's better than Wagner. In fact, Burns and Novick create a soundtrack that is multi-layered, itself an extraordinarily intricate and beautiful work of art. Trent Reznor of Nine-Inch Nails (with Atticus Ross) contributes a throbbing, industrial-sounding point-and-shoot computer game basso profundo to the mayhem on-screen. Periodically Reznor's driving, but mostly subliminal soundtrack, is interrupted by elegiac string music, plaintive and melancholy themes on the order of "Ashokan Farewell" from the Civil War series -- this is the work of Yo-Yo Ma's "Silk Road Ensemble." And, then, of course, the action is also illustrated, rather forthrightly, by Top-40 hits played in the foreground to both emphasize the action and, also, ground the film in the music of the era.
Various criticisms can be validly raised. First, the soundtrack use of Top-40 hits from the late sixties and seventies is sometimes embarrassingly, even crushingly obvious and, indeed, fatuous. Do we really need to hear "Bridge over Troubled Waters" to illustrate Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial? It's pretty obvious to play "Ohio" on the roll-out credits after showing the Kent State shootings. The use of McCartney's "Let it Be" for the closing credits is effective but maudlin. The use of the song also highlighted the defects in the film's political analysis -- funded by both David A. Koch (one of the notorious right-wing Koch Brothers) and the National Endowment of the Arts, the movie has to walk a tightrope; it's supposed to unify not divide, a refreshing concept in the era of Trump, but, probably, not a viable strategy for a film about a war as profoundly divisive as Vietnam. Indeed, the film subscribes to the "shit happens" school of historiography (as displayed by use of "Let it Be") -- it's a tragedy with no real villains, incongruously a war in which everyone is a "hero" or "victim." The film has almost no coherent point of view and, certainly, no coherent geopolitical or sociological argument to propound. (In this regard, the picture should be compared with Patricio Guzman's four-hour film The Battle of Chile, also a documentary masterpiece, but one that is unified by a righteous and perceptive, if annoyingly, dogmatic Marxist perspective; similarly, some of Chris Marker's documentaries are, possibly, superior to this film because of their carefully articulated Leftist political agenda -- Marker's films not only show us the facts in all their complexity, but attempt a politically cohesive interpretation of those facts, something that Burns and Novick eschew. The film is summarized by novelist Tim O'Brien reading from his essay "The Things they carried" -- a brilliant text but one that is wholly inconsequential. Finally, the film's encyclopedic scope, admirable in many ways, also contributes to a sense that the film makers are not presenting a work of art, complete in itself, but rather a comprehensive series of encyclopedia entries on the Vietnam war and allied subjects. The film addresses in obligatory manner various "highpoints" (or better stated celebrated incidents) in the war -- we are shown the Viet Cong infiltrator summarily executed by a South Vietnamese army officer, the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War pitching their medals over the fence at the White House, John McCain interviewed from a hospital bed in Hanoi, John Kerry attributing atrocities to American soldiers, and so on. Many of these "episodes" are presented without being really integrated into the historical, sociological, or political matrix in which they were embedded and, accordingly, seem to be more "mentioned" than really explored or analyzed. In general, the show has a choppy rhythm, alternating between high voltage rock-and-roll infused war footage, talking head witnesses in dim rooms, and political sequences, all of them demonstrating consistent duplicity and skullduggery. Even though the film is 18 hours long, it seems too short -- the carnage at the Democratic National Convention, for instance, is worth a good three hours on its own merits.
Before the next year is finished, just about everyone will see all or a significant part of this film. This is a good thing -- the movie is replete with important lessons and morals. First, it is pretty clear that the level of political villainy shown by Donald Trump is minuscule compared with the crimes of Richard Nixon -- Nixon, after all, interfered with the Paris peace negotiations to influence the election, an act of treason that he denies baldly when questioned by an incredulous LBJ. (We have the tapes, shown as a reel-to-reel recorder implacably rolling.) We are confronted daily with newscasters who seem amazed that Trump lies about everything -- every politician in the show is shown lying repeatedly and with utter impunity. (Every public utterance about the War seems to have been contradicted by a secret memo somewhere.) The show features horrific color footage of the napalm attack that burned the clothes off the little girl in the iconic black and white photograph -- everyone who is in favor of war of any kind should be forced to see this: there is natty-looking napalm attack that blazes brilliantly across the end of a forlorn lane between rice paddies; everyone is congratulating themselves on the beauty and precision of the attack, until a bunch of children come running right out of the fire. The scene where a GI gives the badly burned child a drink of water from his canteen is the stuff of nightmares but something that people should see. The vehemence of the Vietnam War vets throwing their medals at the White House is memorable as are a hundred other scenes. Everyone should also see, and engrave in their heart, the sequence of David Brinkley standing in Arlington cemetery among the uniform white tombstones of dead soldiers. Brinkley says words to the effect that the next time a politician suggests that we embark on a war, the politician should be forced to give his speech in favor of war among those graves. The endless footage of men firing weapons at unseen enemies, body bags, helicopters groaning under the weight of ruined and bloody casualties, explosions and jets shrieking across the skies is ultimately numbing but it conveys, by sheer repetition, the tragedy of Vietnam -- no one knew how to stop the thing; it just went on and on and on. The film's theme is stated in the last ten minutes: What's war for? The answer is that it provides a limitless reserve of compelling stories about courage, brotherhood, atrocity, terror, fear, patriotism, cowardice, forgiveness and reconciliation. I don't think this is an acceptable answer -- indeed, it seems dangerously facile to me -- but this is the justification for combat that seems implicit in the history of its representation, going back to the Iliad and before. The show is disorganized and doesn't hold together except in one sense -- I'm old enough to remember much of this when it happened the first time. It's my sensibility that organizes and unites the footage and the old songs and the anguished testimony of the witnesses -- the draft ended one year before I would have been subject to conscription to Vietnam. What unifies this material for me, and much more so, I suppose, for actual veterans, is that this is a history through which I lived. My memory is what fits this all together within my own experiences of the conflict as shown on the nightly news. Someone wrote this about my generation: Vietnam is what we had instead of a happy childhood.