When the Vietnam War is mentioned, darkness is apparent – be it from fictional films or the atrocities reported in the media. The Vietnam War is, arguably, America’s darkest hour. In September 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novack’s The Vietnam War debuted on PBS as a mini-series made up of ten feature-length episodes. The Vietnam War is both exceptional and extraordinarily detailed.
Ken Burns is a documentarian filmmaker, with a style specialising in the usage of archival footage and photographic imagery. Prior to The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ most famed work were his documentaries on baseball and the Second World War – Baseball and The War respectively. The Vietnam War is the fourth directorial collaboration between Burns and Novack, and continues Burns’ convention of creating documentaries on American culture, history, ideology etc. With over 70 contributors ranging from: protestors; witnesses; CIA; reporters; American veterans; North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veterans; and South Vietnamese veterans, the diversity represented is awe-inspiring, thus The Vietnam War is unparalleled in documentary filmmaking.
When the Vietnam War is thought of, we traditionally see the time period as mid-60s to early-70s, but within the first three episodes – ‘Deja Vu’, ‘Riding the Tiger’, and ‘The River Styx’ – The Vietnam War presents a large foundation of the events that took place in Vietnam, with the first episode – Deja Vu – dating back to the 1850s. It is important to precede the more recognisable Vietnam War events, so that the viewing audience can have a better understanding of why said more recognisable Vietnam War events took place. ‘Deja Vu’ also lays the foundation of how episodes of The Vietnam War play out: a main storyline of chronological events, but featuring inserts of unrelated flash-forward case studies of veterans (living and dead), though some of said case studies are eventually partially repeated when part of the main chronological storyline of events.
In ‘Deja Vu’, in the main chronological storyline, audiences are presented with the French Ruling of Vietnam and a case study (fitting in the main storyline) of Ho Chi Minh, the legendary figure whose name has been the current name for Saigon since the end of the Vietnam War (*SPOILER* if you don’t know your history…). Ho Chi Minh was a revolutionary leader who fought for a unification of Vietnam under a communist ruling – Vietnam was divided after the French colonialism had ended and Cold War had intensified. The US was in support of the South. Additional to the North Vietnamese communists were revolutionaries in the South, willing to take down Diem’s Southern regime and foreign help, they would later be known as the Viet Cong – as dramatic as that read, the Viet Cong reveal in the conclusion of the episode is even more dramatic.
By the time ‘The River Styx’ has arrived, Lyndon B. Johnson is now the President of the United States after JFK’s assassination, and he is filled with fear over Vietnam. During this 1964-65 period, all hell was breaking loose – the US increased their numbers from 16,000 to 23,000, whilst President Johnson oversaw air strikes on North Vietnam after the Viet Cong attacked a US base, despite being privately informed, “Don’t you realise, we’re losing this war.” Operation Rolling Thunder and the concept of systematic bombing is explored in collaboration with the presentation of footage from actual bombings, actual explosions, actual destruction, actual death – this is a truly horrific spectacle of the highest order.
Reaching the midway point of The Vietnam War, just as the series begins to fall foul of an abrupt staleness, we begin to see a supposed shift in the reason of protesting – from “moral interest to self interest.” once middle-class America began to be affected with drafting. Episode 5 / ‘This Is What We Do’ presents, perhaps, one of the two darkest atrocities of the Vietnam War: the war crimes committed by the Tiger Force, including the torture, rape and murder of innocent Vietnamese. This segment of The Vietnam War is beyond uncomfortable to view. As President Johnson announces that he will not serve a second term as President, a new era of The Vietnam War begins.
Episode 8 / ‘The History of the World’ presents the undisputedly darkest atrocity of the Vietnam War occurred when on March 16th 1968, 407 innocent Vietnamese were murdered within a space of four hours. 97 of the murdered were villagers. Many women were raped before murder. The event was regarded as “Systematic Homicide”, whilst President Nixon was more concerned with investigating the snitches and whistleblowers of the massacre.
Terrific filmmaking is evident here, however, as Burns and Novack manage to establish a progressing darkness in The Vietnam War to mirror the progressive darkness from the Vietnam War itself – the artefacts provided become increasingly uneasy to view. The reported atrocities of the Vietnam War led to protestors labelling returning soldiers as “Baby killers”, something of which causes major offence to a Vietnam veteran contributor in The Vietnam War and fictional characters in countless post-Vietnam War films.
Historically, we know that the Vietnam War was heavily protested in America. The Vietnam War is successful is presenting the good and bad sides of the protestors – the good being normal peaceful protestors, whilst the bad being, for example, The Weather Men – chanting the likes of “Kill all the rich people!” and “Kill your parents, that’s where it’s at!” The darkest of the protesting though, can only be the Kent State Shootings where the National Guard fired upon unnamed student protestors, killing four and wounding nine.
By the time we reach the concluding two episodes, it is overwhelmingly evident that the Vietnam War was a series of unthinkable errors by made President Johnson and subsequently made worse by President Nixon, though the latter began to pull troops out whilst debating with his staff (evidence by tape recordings) how to save face from the war. President Nixon made things worse in two senses: senselessly bombing North Vietnam and pulling out the US troops in a manner of which left Saigon and South Vietnam completely open for an invasion, and awarding a long-awaited victory for the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.
Episode 10 / ‘The Weight of Memory’ presents some of the more recognisable Vietnam War history – President Nixon inviting all returns PoWs and families for dinner, but ignoring those sent home with injuries over the years, and of course, Watergate and the subsequent resignation. After the North Vietnamese renaming of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, South Vietnam is almost presented like a dystopian world in The Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is successful in convincing its viewers that the US was at equal blame as the North Vietnam Army & Viet Cong for South Vietnam’s downfall.
The escaping of South Vietnamese and last of the US leaving is almost presented in the manner of a disaster movie. Helicopters on rooftops lifting people out before the danger arrives – all feels very Independence Day. In the years since the Vietnam War, audiences are presented with the treating of Vietnam from other nations and the end games of The Vietnam War’s contributors.
On both disc one and disc ten, special features are present. The disc one special features showcase the making of The Vietnam War, exploring the processes in making everything possible and the years it took. The special features on disc ten hosts a touching group meeting in a pub/diner between war veterans – Vietnam to Afghanistan – opening up about what they’ve experience in their respective wars and how they have respectively dealt with life after war.
An alternative fascination of The Vietnam War is not what is presented on screen, but what the series as a whole does for the understanding and contextualisation of fictional Vietnam-related media. First Blood, for example, presents the story of a Vietnam veteran who is discriminated for being a veteran, but is also a clear sufferer of PTSD. The Vietnam War contextualises so much in regards to PTSD and the variations of sufferance. Sticking with First Blood though, in one of its penultimate sequences, its lead character (Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) describes the abuse hurled towards him when returning from service – “Baby killer” is what he is referred to – The Vietnam War contextualises the term and informs of its origins.
Furthermore, The Vietnam War additionally establishes how bat-sh*t crazy America was during the Vietnam War. As mentioned earlier, a horrifying example being of the innocent student protestors killed on campus and then a subsequent poll declaring that majority of Americans agreed with the killing of the students, is scary beyond belief.
Ultimately, words cannot do justice on how important, valuable and intelligent The Vietnam War is. The Vietnam War is the definitive war documentary. From French Colonialism to reunions between former Vietnam enemies, The Vietnam War DVD box-set is unbiased, insightful, quite simply brilliant, and contains the full length episodes broadcast on PBS, instead of the cut versions from the BBC. More for your money!
The Vietnam War is now available to buy from PBS America, priced £69.99.