Ken Burns became a star on PBS a generation ago by telling the story of the Civil War in a huge — and hugely popular — documentary series. Since then, he and his collaborators have done invaluable work, including a lengthy and superb examination of World War II.
Burns' visual style of patiently zooming in or out of vintage photographs is famous now, and widely copied. But he has other tricks and obsessions that serve him equally well, and which all coalesce perfectly in his newest PBS series, The Vietnam War.
Burns loves to find the small stories and everyday people who lend perspective and emotion to the larger narrative, and he respects the emotional power of music. (Think back to the Sullivan Ballou letter from The Civil War for a famous example of those strengths.) And, always, Burns pays particular attention to race and to place.
It's all on view and used to spectacular effect in The Vietnam War, which is a decade-long effort from what might as well be called the Ken Burns All-Stars. He and longtime collaborating partner Lynn Novick co-direct; Geoffrey C. Ward, who has written most of the very best Burns documentaries, is the writer; Buddy Squires, a major influence on Burns' work, is the cinematographer; and Peter Coyote, who has served as narrator on many Burns projects, returns again.
In The Civil War miniseries, that conflict came alive through the stories of historians like Shelby Foote, and with famous actors providing the voices of long-dead participants. For The Vietnam War, there are neither historians nor famous voices — just actual participants in the drama surrounding that war, and well-chosen vintage TV news coverage from the period.
TV coverage also was used extensively in PBS's previous lengthy examination of this conflict, 1983's Vietnam: A Television History. But no previous documentary has made such an effort to hear from — and listen to — all sides, including the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, the Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the doctors and nurses, and the POWs. And back in the States, we hear from the parents and the siblings of the soldiers, as well as the anti-war protesters.
Through it all, at every point in this brilliantly structured documentary series, Burns, Novick and Ward select just the right music from the era as emotional accompaniment to the frantic sounds and sights of war and to the somber tones of Coyote's narration. In this Vietnam War series, for example, Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" isn't just a rock song; it's a battlefield debriefing.
This TV production begins its narrative in 1858 — a few years before the start of our Civil War in America — so Burns and company are taking their time. And time is this show's biggest asset.
The people interviewed on camera during this Vietnam War series are compelling from the start — but sometimes you don't learn of their special relationship to the larger narrative until eight or more episodes in, as when you find out that one Marine, whom we heard from all along, was the last man to leave Saigon when the embassy was evacuated in 1975. Or that an Army flight surgeon named Hal Kushner not only survives his brutal ordeal as a POW at the ironically named Hanoi Hilton but has still-vivid memories of his return to the States — which he recounts as a Ray Charles anthem plays on the soundtrack.
I ended up crying during Kushner's retelling, and also about a half-dozen other times while watching The Vietnam War. I'll remember each time, just as I'll remember the honesty and the emotions of the people in this TV program discussing their roles in this still-raw drama.
Winston Churchill once said, "History is written by the victors." Burns and company have shown that we can do better than that. The best history, like this important and impressive PBS series, is written by people with compassion for all sides.