There’s been nothing yet like “The Vietnam War,” the new 10-part, 18-hour documentary directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick airing on KQED starting on Sunday.
“No one has ever done this before, no one will again,” said Novick, who visited The City in July with Burns and co-producer Sarah Botstein to talk about the massive project, 10 years in the making.
Seeds for it were planted in late 2006 as the filmmakers were finishing up their 2007 series “The War,” about World War II.
Although the process of combining raw materials to create both films was similar in certain ways, “The Vietnam War,” Novick says, was “much more complex, emotionally, creatively and intellectually” and “the most challenging, difficult story we’ve ever tried to tell.”
The film, for the first time, brings to light perspectives of a multitude of sides and levels of the long and controversial conflict: soldiers who fought, authorities who commanded, those opposed to it, and those deeply affected by it in both the U.S. and Vietnam.
Comprehensive research, including “huge” production trips to Vietnam yielded a “cast” of about 80 people who share their experiences and insights; Botstein says the producers contacted probably 10 times as many potential subjects who aren’t in the film.
For Burns, the notion of division characterizes the project: Not only did the war divide countries, and in ways we still experience today, it also caused psychological divisions within people.
He points to the “anguished commentary” of an American soldier who served in combat because he thought it was an act of conscience not to resist the draft, and that he “went along with the flow” and didn’t want to ostracize his parents, and to the man who didn’t want to go to Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, but had to, and “all of a sudden, he’s weeping at the end of the sentence that begins with his absolute certainty that the wall was a bad thing.”
“Everyone has all of this uncertainty … to be able to see that on the faces of all the people – Americans, North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese – that’s surprising stuff,” says Burns.
U.S. presidents also were uncertain, revealed in fascinating audio recordings of their behind-the-scenes discussions about the war.
“We thought we knew them; we didn’t,” says Novick. “Eavesdropping on their conversations with each other, their closest staff, getting dimensions of their leadership style, their decision making, their conscience — or lack thereof — was jaw-dropping,” she says, as Burns mentions Lyndon Johnson’s “backstage anxiety” and Richard Nixon’s “chilling calculations.”
“They knew from the beginning that this probably wasn’t going to work out,” says Botstein, who adds that the fact that America financed 80 percent of the French war against Vietnam (which long preceded U.S. involvement) was among many things she learned making the movie.
Burns argues that the American-Vietnam connection can be traced back to 1945, or even 1919, when Ho Chi Minh worked as a pastry chef at the Parker Hotel in Boston.
Among the “10,000 facts” Burns picked up during the project was that while Ho Chi Minh was the face of the communist party, others were making political decisions very different from what he wanted.
Novick, who said she previously did not understand the complexity of tensions between leaders in North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Washington D.C. — and the differences between what they said privately and publicly — was led to consider two enduring questions: What is your role as a citizen in a democracy, and what does being patriotic mean?
Burns, meanwhile, plugs PBS for authorizing and paying for the project, for allowing the team to take a decade “to aggregate all of the stuff that has never been aggregated before.”
He says, “There’s no business model for this. This is only on public broadcasting. Thank goodness.”
IF YOU WATCH
The Vietnam War
Where: KQED, Channel 9
Note: KQED’s excellent complementary coverage of Bay Area stories about the conflict and its effects can be found at ww2.kqed.org/arts/programs/vietnamwar/
1: Déjà Vu (1858-1961) — 8 p.m. Sept 17; 2 a.m. Sept 18; 9 p.m. Oct. 3; 3 a.m. Oct 4
2: Riding The Tiger (1961-63) — 8 p.m. Sept. 18; 2 a.m. Sept 19
3: The River Styx (Jan. 1964-Dec. 1965) — 8 p.m. Sept. 19; 2 a.m. Sept. 20; 9 p.m. Oct. 10; 3 a.m. Oct. 11
4: Resolve (Jan. 1966-June 1967) — 8 p.m. Sept. 20; 1 a.m. Sept. 21; 9 p.m. Oct. 17; 3 a.m. Oct. 18
5: This Is What We Do (July 1967-Dec. 1967) — 8 p.m. Sept. 21; 2 a.m. Sept. 22; 9 p.m. Oct. 24; 3 a.m. Oct. 25
6: Things Fall Apart (Jan. 1968-July 1968) — 8 p.m. Sept. 24; 2 a.m. Sept. 25; 9 p.m. Oct. 31
7: The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969) — 8 p.m. Sept. 25; 2 a.m. Sept 26
8: The History of The World (April 1969-May 1970) — 8 p.m. Sept. 26; 2 a.m. Sept. 27
9: A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973) — 8 p.m. Sept. 27; 2 a.m. Sept. 28
10: The Weight of Memory (March 1973-onward) — 8 p.m. Sept. 28, 2 a.m. Sept. 29