To put it simply Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Vietnam is a masterpiece.
Longer than Wagner's Ring cycle (and more dramatic) this 18-hour documentary, finally, explains the Vietnam nightmare comprehensively, fairly, visually, personally, majestically.
I was a teenager during much of the war. Vietnam was in my face from the time I was in 8th grade until I was out of college. It was always there simmering, occasionally boiling, usually tasteless during that part of my life. I had a high school buddy killed over there. I had other friends come back and tell of horrible and exciting things they witnessed and did there. I saw the new stories, the TV reports, the magazines, the radio news. I was flooded with information, but there was no singular narrative that could link it all together. The Presidents said one thing, our soldiers said another, news reporters another and our enemies something completely different.
What was the truth about that catastrophe?
Well, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick really did their homework.
After decades of mastering how to tell a long story through the documentary process, they used their collective knowledge (and you can tell a passion) to finally get to the bottom of Vietnam. But they professionally decided, as always, not to tell their story. No, they captured all the elements then aligned them, in a time- tested way, in which the truth finally comes through. Including many shameful truths I was never aware of.
I'm sure with all the footage from news networks, presidential libraries, international sources, enemy footage, and personal media— they had more material than ever to go through. Yet every segment of the eighteen hours seems essential. They tell the big story, the military story, the political story, the cultural stories, the generational story, the secret story, the personal stories and the follow up story—all brilliantly.
If I had to be critical about anything, well, maybe it's a bit too long. They methodically look at each year of the war. By the time you get to Nixon, you feel like you've seen enough of the jungles, the treachery of the enemy, the American firepower, the same futility many times before. Oh, there's always a new fact, or a different person interviewed who shares their view and pain. But truthfully, after a while, I found myself a little restless.
But, perhaps that tedium is part of the deep thinking, the intelligence behind this monumental documentary. The war was long, painful tedious, and it morphed into different entities as it dragged on. You could read that in a book, someone can tell you, but through ten nights you can almost feel the weight, the plague of that awful mess.
I'm convinced this Vietnam documentary will be and should be a course in schools; an essential opus of study and discovery for one of the most complicated, expensive and divisive periods of our history.