DirectorKen Burns, Lynn Novick
Release Date(s)2017 (September 19, 2017)
Studio(s)Florentine Films/PBS (PBS Distribution)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
One of the great failings of Humanity, it seems to me, is that each new generation makes so many of the same terrible mistakes. Technology, science, religion, culture – these things we pass down across the ages, but for some reason, the distractions of the present mean that far too few of us ever look back to learn the lessons of history. And in recent American history, few events have been more complicated and tragic than the Vietnam War.
Ask any group of Americans what this war was about and why we fought it; the older members of the group are likely to give you different answers and the younger ones won’t have any idea at all. Experienced historians know that 30 or 40 years of perspective is really needed in order to begin triangulating on the causes and truths of such difficult events. In this regard, few have done more to illuminate this kind of history to the general public than documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. So it seems only natural that now, some 42 years after the end of the conflict, we finally have The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, written by Geoffrey C. Ward (who also wrote Burns’ The Civil War) and narrated by actor Peter Coyote (also a frequent Burns collaborator).
The result of over a decade of intense research and production, this 10-episode, 18-hour series attempts to document the war chronologically, from its earliest origins in the mid 19th Century to its lingering effects on the present day. An army of historians was consulted throughout the process to craft as fair and truthful a picture as possible, but no picture can be completely accurate. Historians still argue about this conflict’s many complicated issues. Still, nearly 80 witnesses and first-hand participants were interviewed on all sides of the conflict, including Americans soldiers, North and South Vietnamese, and even conscientious objectors. Famous (and often controversial) participants were avoided in favor of the everyman experience, focusing especially on a ground up perspective that’s accented by historical audio and film recordings of leadership figures like Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and advisors like Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. The result is imperfect by its very nature, but is nonetheless a powerful and moving documentary experience.
PBS’ Blu-ray release is a 10-disc box set presenting each episode on its own disc in 1080p HD at the 1.78:1 broadcast aspect ratio. Each episode runs 80-85 minutes in length. The image quality is generally good, varying with the source material which incorporates newly-shot film footage with vintage 8 mm and 16 mm film footage, vintage news footage, vintage SD TV footage, and archival photographs. The audio quality is excellent overall, included in an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix (with optional English and Spanish subtitles), as well as English and Spanish stereo and English Video Descriptions, all in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Clarity is terrific, with clean interview material interspersed with light Foley and sound effects mixing. The filmmakers have also attempted to recreate the mood of the period through the use of popular music by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and many more. Additional tension is created through new music created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (including some reworked material from their scores for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), as well as compositions performed by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.
The series’ 10 episodes include (in order):
- Déjà Vu (1858 – 1961)
- Riding the Tiger (1961 – 1963)
- The River Styx (January 1964 – December 1965)
- Resolve (January 1966 – June 1967)
- This Is What We Do (July 1967 – December 1967)
- Things Fall Apart (January 1968 – July 1968)
- The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968 – May 1969)
- The History of the World (April 1969 – May 1970)
- A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970 – March 1973)
- The Weight of Memory (March 1973 – Onward)
In addition, the Blu-ray set includes over 100 minutes worth of extras in the form of additional featurettes and deleted sequences. These are found on Discs One and Ten of the set, and include the following (all in HD):
- Making of The Vietnam War (39:47)
- The March Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (2:28)
- An American Woman in a War Zone (2:49)
- Delivering Bad News (4:36)
- Hero Pilot of North Vietnam (5:11)
- Tigers, Elephants, and Helicopters (3:12)
- For No Reason at All (1:42)
- Fellow Warriors – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (20:35)
- A Vietnam War Deserter in a West Point Classroom (6:53)
- Facing the Draft Board (3:32)
- Behind the Lines at Long Binh (5:03)
- Captured Spy and an American Interrogator (11:06)
Again, it should be noted that no documentary series on this conflict can claim to offer all the answers and this one certainly doesn’t try. What it does do, and very well indeed, is to ask hard questions and to attempt to explore this conflict fairly, impartially, and unflinchingly. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War is revealing, illuminating, often surprising, and always engrossing. Whether you fought in the conflict, fought against the conflict, were born in its long shadow (as I was), or have only recently learned of it, this is history well worth exploring and a documentary series well worth seeing. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt