The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 17-hour PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, pays plenty of dues to all conventional wisdom about the horrors of war. Nearly all the veterans of the conflict interviewed in the series (from both sides) speak of this — the carnage they witnessed, the horrors they suffered, the nightmares they still have. Narrator Peter Coyote recites words like “tragedy” and “senseless” plenty of times. Burns has stated that he sees war as a virus and his film as a “vaccination” against it. But no matter what he, Novick, or the explicit text of their ambitious project claim, the aesthetics betray a more conventional view of their subject matter.
Burns’s various films about American history, including 1990’s The Civil War, 1994’s Baseball, and 2007’s The War, have earned him a reputation as our premier documentarian. His cinematic style has become a template for nonfiction filmmaking (it’s not often that movie artists get a technique popularly named after them). While it may be easy to dismiss his no-frills construction as boring, there is an art to the standard pattern of the documentary and its use of talking heads, archival footage and photos, and explanatory graphics.
Plenty of filmmakers misuse these elements, failing to make their stories compelling or to properly convey the information at hand. This is one reason that some may hold a suspicious view of documentaries, or an instinctive dread of educational films. Burns and Novick are masters of this documentary genre — call it “PBS Standard”— and The Vietnam War is as skillful a showcase of it as one can find, likely to go on to become a canonical example. But anyone looking for a story of the Vietnam War that’s actually new here will find it lacking. Instead, it retreads tired apologia for US atrocities in Vietnam.
“Objectivity” is considered sacrosanct for a good documentary, and Burns is its champion, referring to the presentation of all sides in the conflict as “triangulation,” and asserting it’s the only way to answer the question “What happened?” But objectivity is an illusion. It is always an illusion, of course, but the pretense otherwise is especially insidious here. Plenty of publications have already enumerated the ways in which The Vietnam War misrepresents history to whitewash US actions in the war. Among other things, the show shortchanges the experiences of Vietnamese civilians, presents the US-installed South Vietnam dictator Ngô Đình Diệm as coming out of nowhere, and reports the long-debunked official line on the Gulf of Tonkin incident as fact.
Again and again, critics bring up an early piece of narration as particularly indicative of the series’ ideological shortcomings. Coyote, reading Geoffrey Ward’s script, claims the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” Any evaluation of history not blinkered by patriotism will recognize that statement as false. No matter how much one presents ugly casualty statistics or footage of civilian suffering, the documentary’s insistence on pulling any punch that might make America look too bad obscures the full horror of the history in question.
This skittishness toward the question of whether the US could possibly have been “the bad guy” in the conflict is reflected even in small choices. For instance, there’s the frequent referral to US “involvement” (as opposed to “invasion” or “occupation”) in Vietnam — euphemisms as old as the war itself. The façade of “triangulation” is undermined even more by the mere presence of a narrator. While the interviewees are given license to express whatever opinions they hold, a disembodied voice existing alongside them implies the existence of a parallel and more authoritative narrative — an official version of events the viewer can trust. It exists apart from the people we see, explaining things to us from a position of apparent omniscience. Yet this supposedly reliable narrator is also the source of all the mistruths referred to above.
The score, from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, betrays the documentary’s sympathies even more clearly. Scenes dealing with fear of the spreading red tide of communism in the middle of the 20th century are accompanied by ominous music. The same happens whenever the North Vietnamese forces score a win over the Americans. It becomes ever clearer over the course of each episode that, while Burns and Novick have deigned to include North Vietnamese voices in their project, they are present mainly to fill in expositional gaps concerning battles or political shifts or the like. They get to speak, but we are not meant to understand their point of view. They are still the enemy.
Not long after The Vietnam War exonerates the American government as acting in “good faith” when meddling in Vietnam, it executes a sequence which, coming from the PBS Standard, is mildly surprising. Straying from a predictable pattern of straightforward interview/narration/footage, it indulges an artistic flourish: To transition from the first episode’s introduction to the beginning of the history it examines, the documentary literally rewinds the war. Explosions shrink and bombs fly from the ground into the bellies of planes. Antiwar protestors march backward. A bullet withdraws from Nguyễn Văn Lém’s head into Nguyễn Ngọc Loan’s gun. It recalls a passage from Slaughterhouse-Five, or the final scene of Come and See. Entropy is reversed, order is brought to chaos, lives are saved.
Conceptually, it’s intriguing. But the scene is over in about a minute. The music is as indifferently, generically “intense” as it is during any given battle sequence. There is none of Vonnegut’s melancholy, born from personal experience in war. There’s none of Come and See’s anguish, the sense of attempting to undo history through sheer force of will. It’s nothing but a “cool” transition. The Vietnam War, which took ten years and $30 million (some of which came from Bank of America and David Koch) to make, does almost nothing new with its topic. It can’t say what any number of books, documentaries, articles, or fiction films haven’t already said. There are some interviews with people from whom most Americans might not have heard before. That’s it. It averts its eye from the possibility of America as a historical villain in pursuit of some nebulous “answer” which supposedly exists in the median between divergent viewpoints. How can it elucidate the pain of a historical wound when it noncommittally diffuses experience among so many sides for fear of offending any of them? How can this series be anything but another tool which future lazy teachers will use in lieu of robust lesson plans?