Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new 18-hour documentary series, “The
Vietnam War,” premieres Sunday on PBS, and it feels
as searingly immediate as it is soaked in history.
Burns rejects the notion that history repeats itself, but at a
Bank of America preview screening of the doc in New York on
Thursday, Burns said he does notice “historical
rhymes” in his work.
“I’m hearing a lot of rhymes today,” Burns continued: a
public divided, a president convinced the media is lying,
the “rancor” that fills the country — a word Burns used
And while there are lessons to be learned from “Vietnam”
about the horrors of war and its lasting effects, the main
project Burns and Novick took on was telling the “many truths” of
the war. That means interviews, and archival footage, from
all sides of the conflict.
Though you may have seen some of the footage in “Vietnam”
before, it’s still stunning, especially when placed alongside
personal recollections. During the war, journalists had a
striking level of access and intimacy with soldiers — and they
paid the price. Over 200 journalists and photographers
were killed in Vietnam, Novick said.
For “Vietnam,” the quality of the archival footage means a truly
cinematic feel, and less classic “Ken Burns” tricks to make still
photos seem alive. But it’s not just the footage, but rather
the individual perspectives that will stick with you, especially
those of Vietnamese people on both sides.
Phan Quang Tue, a retired immigration judge who came to the
US in 1975 (and appeared in the doc), said at the screening he
felt “Vietnam” was a non-partisan documentary, and that viewers
should approach it as such.
One such viewer is Senator John McCain, whose wartime
experience is the stuff of legends. “McCain just wanted to see
the North Vietnamese stories,” Burns said Thursday. “Show me
their story,” McCain instructed Burns when being shown parts of
“Our species is bad at learning from events,” Burns said.
But if you want to get the most out of this new documentary, you
should take the McCain approach, and listen to all the
perspectives on this defining and painful chapter in US
“The Vietnam War” premieres Sunday, September 17 on PBS.
You can also watch it
using the PBS app.