Ken Burns shot to fame in 1990 with “The Civil War,” which drew record audiences for PBS and jump-started a revival of popular interest in the subject. Nearly three decades and more than 20 documentaries later, he is perhaps the nation’s most trusted historical brand, as much an icon of American-ness as baseball (the subject of his nine-part 1994 documentary) and apple pie (one of the few classic American themes he hasn’t taken on).
There’s a “Ken Burns effect” for iMovie, and a Ken Burns iPad app, with video playlists on themes like Innovation, Leadership and Race. The man himself has voiced a cameo on “The Simpsons” mocking his folksy style and signature bowl haircut.
Now, with the sprawling 10-part, 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War,” which begins airing on PBS on Sept. 17, he had his longtime creative partner Lynn Novick take on what might be their most challenging and fraught subject yet.
Half a century after the height of the conflict might seem like an ideal moment for another look: long enough for most of the toxic political dust to have settled (and new historical sources to have emerged), but not so long that everyone who lived through it is dead. The $30 million film, more than 10 years in the making, offers an intensely immersive, often head-spinning history lesson, combining grand sweep and archival depth with sometimes devastatingly emotional first-person interviews with people from all sides (including more than two dozen Vietnamese, from both the winning and losing sides).
It also offers an uncannily well-timed reflection of our current societal fractures — a kind of origin story for the culture wars that still have us asking: Which side are you on?
“The seeds of disunion we experience today, the polarization, the lack of civil discourse all had their seeds in Vietnam,” Burns said. “I can’t imagine a better way to help pull out some of the fuel rods that create this radioactive atmosphere than to talk about Vietnam in a calm way.”
Burns was speaking recently at the small New York office of his production company, Florentine Films, where he and Novick were pausing amid a barnstorming 30-date tour to promote the film, which will air over two weeks, starting with a Sunday night doubleheader, old-school event-television style. (Binge-watchers can stream it in two gulps, released each weekend during the run.)
In conversation, Burns is the more expansive of the pair, speaking in eloquent riffs larded with references to Mark Twain, Learned Hand, the Declaration of Independence and the ancient Greek concept of heroism, and floating a favorite analogy comparing filmmaking to boiling down maple syrup. (Florentine’s main base of operations is in Walpole, N.H., population 3,734, where he has lived since the 1970s.)
Novick, who joined Florentine during postproduction of “The Civil War” and has been Burns’ co-director on four previous documentaries, including “The War,” their 2007 seven-part series on World War II, tends to speak more plainly.
Asked about the origins of the project, she said they had “been dancing around it for a long time,” but the war still felt too recent, too raw, to tackle.
“It just seemed impossible,” she said. “How could you ever do it?”
In approaching the subject, Burns and Novick set some ground rules. No historians or other expert talking heads. No on-screen interviews with polarizing boldfaced names like John Kerry, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and Jane Fonda, or anyone with “an interest in having history break the way they want it to break,” as Burns put it. (The filmmakers met with McCain and Kerry for advice early on and said both were supportive. Some other prominent figures expressed interest in being interviewed, Burns said, and were politely rebuffed.)
Instead, the 79 on-screen interviews give the ground-up view of the war from the mostly ordinary people who lived through it: U.S. veterans (including former POWs), Gold Star mothers, diplomats, intelligence officers, anti-war activists, journalists, Viet Cong fighters, North and South Vietnamese army regulars, even a (female) truck driver from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The tone is carefully evenhanded. But by the end of Episode 4, which takes the story up to June 1967, things seem to be going so disastrously wrong that viewers may find themselves amazed that there are still six episodes and seven years of carnage – eventually claiming more than 58,000 American and more than 3 million Vietnamese military and civilian lives – to go.
“It’s like you’re driving fast down a highway and the sign says, ‘Bridge out 3 miles,’ and you keep going,” Burns said. “And then another sign says ‘Bridge out, stop.’ You break through the barrier – wow, isn’t this fun! – and then you see another sign: Bridge out, bridge out!”
It’s a view of the war as careening disaster that may be more widely accepted than it was in the 1980s, when conservative outcry over Stanley Karnow’s 13-hour “Vietnam: A Television History,” also shown on PBS, led some stations to air an hourlong rebuttal, narrated by Charlton Heston.
Burns, in addition to including a range of perspectives in the film, said he had deliberately sought financial support from “across the spectrum,” with sponsors including the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and David H. Koch.
“That’s a way of telling people ‘You can re-sheath your knives,’” he said.
That may be wishful thinking. Some critics from the left have already begun picking apart its supposed overreliance on military interviewees; its “American bias”; its statement, in the prologue, that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people.”
John Musgrave, a Marine combat veteran from Baldwin City, Missouri, who appears in the film, said he had heard from veterans of varying political stripes who had already decided they were against the film.
“The way we were treated after the war made us pretty sensitive, but I tell them, ‘Man, just watch it,’” Musgrave said. “The film just tells the historical story and the personal story of the war. I didn’t get the impression there’s any ax to grind.”
There are scenes covering 25 battles, 10 of which are examined from multiple perspectives, from the battle of Hue, during the 1968 Tet offensive, and the carnage at Hamburger Hill to pivotal but less-remembered (by Americans, at least) early confrontations at places like Ap Bac and Binh Gia.
While the people interviewed hold a range of views about the war, the filmmakers avoid what-ifs or might-have-beens and don’t engage continuing debates over whether the war was winnable.
Not that there aren’t disagreements on screen, just as there were among the project’s advisers, who included leading scholars. Every word of the script, written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward, was carefully weighed. And perhaps none were as carefully debated as those in that opening narration, which describes the war as ending in “failure” (not “defeat,” Burns noted, although he used the word himself).
“I think we probably spent six months on the word ‘failure,’ talking about it, letting our consultants weigh in, watching them argue,” Burns said.
As for “begun in good faith,” Burns said he stands by those words, which he said reflect the intentions of those who fought the war, even if they are perhaps “too generous” to our leaders.
The film’s center of moral gravity is ordinary soldiers, whose sacrifice and loyalty to one another are repeatedly contrasted with the political machinations of the powerful, on both sides. The filmmakers dig into new scholarship detailing how Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s president, was sometimes sidelined by Le Duan, the hard-liner party secretary who pushed for more aggressive, often disastrously costly military strategy.
And they make devastating use of secret White House tapes to show how Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Kissinger and others maneuvered to conceal the full truth about the war from the public and avoid a political reckoning.
Not that the film highlights the point with flaming arrows. “It’s very reductive to say ‘They lied, they lied,’ ” Novick said. “That’s true, but what we really want to do is show what was really going on.”
Novick and Sarah Botstein, a producer, made three trips to Vietnam to find and interview veterans about their experiences. (The entire film will be available for streaming with Vietnamese subtitles, and Novick returned to Vietnam last month to hold screenings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the audience included members of the press.)
Some spoke of a reconsideration of the human costs of the war. Others openly, if gingerly, contradicted Hanoi’s official narrative, which holds that it was a noble national liberation struggle, period, with all atrocities committed by the other side.
The film deals bluntly, if also carefully, with the My Lai Massacre and other atrocities by Americans. Some veterans interviewed on screen recall things they witnessed, or participated in, that walk right up to the line of morality and legality.
“You can see the wheels turning: Should I say it?” Novick said, recalling those interviews. “But they want the world to understand what war is like, and so do we.”
Burns said the film takes an “equal opportunity” approach to the inhumanity of the war. It’s the kind of resolutely centrist balance that may not sit well with partisan viewers, but so be it.
“Today, we suffer from too much certainty,” he said. “I like the middle, the uncertainty of things. I think that’s where all the progress, all the healing, takes place.”
“The Vietnam War” airs at 8 p.m. Sept. 17-21 and 24-28 on Idaho Public Television.