There are many remarkable moments in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary “The Vietnam War.” With that subject, those filmmakers, and a length of 18 hours, how could there not be? The first of 10 episodes airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on WGBH 2, the final one on Sept. 28.
What may be the most remarkable of those moments comes at the beginning of episode seven. In two sentences, we hear summarized America’s 30-year involvement in Indochina. Tim O’Brien, the author of “The Things They Carried,” that mini-Iliad of that awful conflict, is describing how he finally came to accept his draft notice in the summer of 1968 rather than go to Canada.
“It wasn’t a decision,” O’Brien says. “It was the forfeiture of a decision.”
Burns and Novick bend over backward not to make judgments. Every side, every view, gets a hearing. But they leave one unavoidable lesson for viewers to draw. It’s the most horrifying thing in a story full of horrors: how administration after administration kept getting deeper and deeper into Vietnam despite suspecting it was a mistake or knowing it outright. Inertia, and politics, were in the saddle, and hundreds of thousands died as a consequence.
“The Vietnam War” goes from 1858, when the French began to assume power, to today, with a unified Vietnam inconceivably different from anything either Americans or the Vietnamese could have anticipated in the ’60s.
That’s a vast stretch of history, and this is easily the most ambitious Burns documentary, as well as the darkest. It’s 7½ hours longer than “The Civil War” (1990), the documentary that made his reputation, and three hours longer than “The War” (2007), about World War II, which he codirected with Novick.
“No one builds bases like Americans,” Michael Herr wrote in his classic book of Vietnam reportage, “Dispatches.” No one builds documentaries like Burns. As an act of sheer organization, “The Vietnam War” is a marvel, weaving together archival footage, news broadcasts, period photographs, presidential audio tapes. Give credit to such Burns stalwarts as cinematographer Buddy Squires; editors Erik Ewers, Tricia Reidy, and Craig Mellish; writer Geoffrey Ward; and narrator Peter Coyote.
The appropriately disturbing score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, of Nine Inch Nails, with additional contributions from David Cieri and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Former state Representative Thomas J. Vallely, a Marine vet, served as the series’ senior adviser.
Truly, the unsung heroes of Florentine Films, Burns’s production company, are its researchers. It’s not just the array of combat footage and still images, superb though they are. It’s such surprises as a photograph showing Lyndon Johnson staring at a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (count the Great Society among the war’s casualties) and a clip of Johnny Carson announcing that “The Tonight Show” will be delayed 15 minutes for an NBC newscast about “the critical war situation, especially around Saigon” during the Tet Offensive.
Among the 79 interview subjects are many Vietnamese, both North and South. The American talking heads include veterans (enlisted men and junior officers — no brass), resisters, and members of soldiers’ families. The home front concerns Burns and Novick no less than the battlefield does. There are even a few policy makers. The diplomat John Negroponte may get off the single most acid remark in all the 18 hours. “We bombed them into accepting our concessions,” he says of the 1972 Christmas bombings Richard Nixon unleashed to bring Hanoi back to the negotiating table.
Some of the talking heads are well-known (O’Brien, journalist Neil Sheehan). Many more you likely won’t recognize — which makes their stories that much more compelling. Try to forget Marine vet John Musgrave describing how he still has to sleep with a night light a half century after the battle of Con Thien.
The documentary begins with the sound of helicopters. For viewers of a certain age that sound summons up Vietnam as surely as darkness does night. This was a war about technology and terrain, how one could overcome the other, but only so much. Thirty-six million copter sorties were flown. That’s just one of many facts likely to surprise even viewers who lived during that time or who have studied the war.
Only 20 percent of US personnel in Vietnam saw combat. The number of Canadians who joined the US military to fight in Vietnam, 30,000, matched the number of Americans who moved to Canada to avoid the draft. When the North Vietnamese mounted their final offensive, in the spring of 1975, South Vietnam had the fifth-largest army in the world.
Burns long ago earned the sincerest honor a consumer society can bestow. He’s a brand name. This has benefits. He gets to effectively commandeer two weeks of PBS’s prime-time schedule. He gets big-tickets donors. Support for “The Vietnam War” comes from the likes of Bank of America, the Ford Foundation, and David H. Koch — yes, that David H. Koch.
No one builds documentaries like Ken Burns. As an act of sheer organization, ‘The Vietnam War’ is a marvel.
Yet that status taketh away as well as giveth. Whoever thinks about Ken Burns? Which is to say, nobody seems to notice that along with being a brand name he’s also among the greatest living American filmmakers. Yes, Burns works almost exclusively on television. Yes, his films are (ostensibly) about the past. Yes, they’re documentaries. So? So great filmmaking is the combining of sound and image, motion and emotion, intention and execution in such a way as to be indelible and enduring. It also helps to maintain a consistent level of achievement. By those measures, Burns is hard to beat.
Not that he’s perfect. Very early on, there’s a sequence where archival film is reversed — crashed helicopters soar skyward, bullets go back into gun barrels — and it’s so . . . lame. Cross-cutting footage of Woodstock with footage of combat (sped-up, no less) isn’t so much lame as crass. Showing period TV footage within a superimposed ’60s TV console is gimmicky.
Few filmmakers use music better than Burns. How much does he love music? His “Jazz” (2001) is an hour longer than the new documentary. Alas, too often the Vietnam soundtrack suffers from classic-hits syndrome. It’s not just that so many of the period hits are overfamiliar. It’s that they can be used so reductively. For the rioting outside the 1968 Democratic convention we hear the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Gee, really?
In fairness, what may be the most mind-bending moment in the series involves music. During the Tet Offensive, the Communists captured the South Vietnamese national radio station. A quick-witted technician switched wires before propaganda could be broadcast. What went over the air was Viennese waltzes and Beatles songs. We then hear the doominess of “Tomorrow Never Knows” played over footage of the fighting. The clash of sound and image is unforgettable.
It’s also representative of just how good the series can be at its frequent best. The philosopher Arthur C. Danto, a World War II veteran, once wrote of the experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “Be prepared to weep.” Those words also apply to the experience of watching these 18 hours. That is no small tribute to Burns and Novick — and a reminder of how much the war remains with us.
THE VIETNAM WAR
On WGBH 2, Sept. 17-28, 8-10 p.m.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.