Review: Ken Burns's Vietnam War Will Break Your Heart and Win Your Mind

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“The Vietnam War” begins in reverse. After a brief introduction, there’s a sequence of familiar footage, running backward. Napalm is sucked out of the jungle. Bombs fall up. A prisoner springs to life as a bullet shoots from his head into the chamber of a gun. The sequence feels like a mission statement for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s plangent, encyclopedic, sometimes wearying documentary. Yes, you’ve seen these images before. But to have even a chance at understanding this mess, you have to go back. Way back. The first episode, which airs Sunday on PBS, pedals back to 1858 and the French conquest of Indochina. Most of it is devoted to Vietnam’s colonial history, the rise of Ho Chi Minh and France’s own doomed war. This gives you a sense of the scope of the series, at 18 hours and 10 episodes one of Mr. Burns’s longest. It also sets a theme: that this history had its own history, one we disastrously ignored. (“We” here and below means Americans, because while Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick include many Vietnamese voices, they are ultimately telling U.S. history.) “The Vietnam War” is not Mr. Burns’s most innovative film. Since the war was waged in the TV era, the filmmakers rely less exclusively on the trademark “Ken Burns effect” pans over still images. Since Vietnam was the “living-room war,” played out on the nightly news, this documentary doesn’t show us the fighting with new eyes, the way “The War” did with its unearthed archival World War II footage. But it is probably Mr. Burns’s saddest film. “The Civil War” was mournful, but at least the Union was preserved. “The War” ended with fascism defeated. The war in Vietnam offers no uplift or happy ending. It’s simply decades of bad decision after bad decision, a wasteful vortex that devoured lives for nothing. It was, the narrator Peter Coyote says, “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculations.” “The Vietnam War” is less an indictment than a lament. This is where Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick’s primary-source interviews are so effective. Arguably, the most important Ken Burns effect is not a visual trick but the refocusing of history on first-person stories. Geoffrey C. Ward’s script has a big-picture historical arc — presidents and generals, battles and negotiations, domino theory and madman theory. The narrative wends nimbly from Washington to the battlefield (both sides) to living rooms, TV studios, campuses and convention halls. But the film’s power comes from the oral histories. An American veteran describes dragging insurgents’ corpses into a village square “to see who would cry over them” so there would be more people to question. A soldier’s mother remembers tensing up every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls when she was assigned to a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese counterpart, an unfinished dress that the daughter had been sewing still lying in place. One interviewee who stands out is the soft-spoken John Musgrave, whose arc over the course of the documentary takes him from a Marine driven by pure hatred of the enemy, to antiwar protester. His emotion is still on the surface as he recalls a dark time, after his discharge, when his dogs interrupted him as he sat with his pistol to his head. “I think,” he says — and it’s as if the immensity is hitting him at that second — “I would have k-k-killed myself.” The emotional climax comes in the eighth episode, which culminates in 1970, when Ohio National Guard troops shot to death four student protesters at Kent State University. The war had already killed thousands upon thousands. But with Kent State, it feels, America had simply broken. You might mistake Episode 9, which ends with the American withdrawal in 1973, for the conclusion. But it wasn’t an ending for the people of Vietnam, for the remaining prisoners of war or for the United States. Like Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial, wh...

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