The Vietnam War review – Ken Burns makes a complex story immediately comprehensible

The famed documentary-maker and his collaborator Lynn Novick bring their brand of meticulous, epic documentary to the murky story of the US’s embroilment in south-east Asia

In the opening sequence of The Vietnam War (BBC4), grainy footage rolls backwards: bombs fall up, riot police back away from protesters, villages and draft cards reconstitute themselves out of the flames. This sequence drags the viewer back in time, beyond some indeterminate point where history takes on the imprint of inevitability. Let’s stop looking at the Vietnam war through the prism of subsequent events, it says. Let’s remember what happened.

The release of a new 10-part Ken Burns documentary is always a big deal, although this one seems particularly timely. He shares the directing credit with long-time collaborator Lynn Novick, who probably isn’t getting enough attention for her contribution, but Burns’s name is so indelibly associated with a certain style of film-making it’s almost an adjective. In fact, the “Ken Burns effect” is the name commonly used for the editing software option that allows you to pan and zoom across still photographs, mimicking the technique so extensively deployed in his most famous documentary, The Civil War.

The Vietnam War bears many of its epic predecessor’s hallmarks: talking heads, sonorous narration (Peter Coyote, who has Emmy-winning form in this area), period music and a meticulous approach to sequential narrative. But, in this case, the talking heads are survivors (from both the US and Vietnam), a large proportion of the pictures move all by themselves, and the music is the sort of acid rock that seems to go well with scenes of fire and smoke.

I was born into the middle of the Vietnam war – by the time I was 10, it seemed to me that it had always been going on – and like a lot of people of my generation, I am intimately familiar with its slang and its acronyms, while pretty sketchy on its origins. The first episode took us back to France’s colonial rule of Indochina, although this narrative was wisely interwoven with footage from later stages of the war. That way it didn’t feel too much like a remedial history lesson, although it was one and, from my point of view, a sorely needed one. The second episode (they are showing two a night, in the modern manner) took us up to John F Kennedy’s assassination, by which time the US had 16,000 military “advisers” on the ground.

The story proper begins with Ho Chi Minh, a man whose single-minded obsession with an independent Vietnam was deemed too nationalistic by his fellow Marxist exiles. Nor was Ho, formerly a pastry chef in a Boston hotel, remotely anti-American in the early days. During the second world war, his fighters, the Viet Minh, were allied with the US against the Japanese invaders and the collaborationist French running the colonial government. When Ho declared Vietnam independent in 1945, he quoted a bit of the American Declaration of Independence.

After the war, the French reasserted their right to rule. They were the ones who introduced napalm – a gelatinous petroleum used to set dense jungle ablaze – into the equation. In an echo of what would come later, returning French soldiers were pelted with rocks in Marseille. But the US was by then obsessed with the idea that one south-east Asian country after another might fall to communism – the so-called domino effect – unless a line in the sand was drawn. According to one former Pentagon official, the US regarded Vietnam as “a piece on a chessboard, not a place with a cultural history that we would have an impossible time changing”.

Particular attention is given to the Vietnamese perspective, with a vivid portrayal of the rogues who clung to power in the south after the Viet Cong retreated above the 17th parallel, transforming a struggle for independence into a civil war. Particularly compelling was the ghastly Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of the nominal leader, Ngo Dinh Diem; she accused the Buddhist monks who set themselves alight in protest of using imported petrol.

Burns and Novick have a great skill for making an immensely complex story immediately comprehensible. The narration is kept to a minimum, but what there is of it is exquisitely written. Within the narrative they paint a picture of the US at a crossroads. A photo of Kennedy, that most modern of presidents, striding off to his inauguration in a top hat, offers a telling glimpse of a nation caught between two eras.

Above all, the Burns brand carries with it a sense of trustworthiness; of a project undertaken with humility, but without an agenda beyond the truth. Maybe it’s this notion, rather than the idea that the Vietnam war is at the root of the US’s divisive apolitical culture, that makes the series seem so important right now.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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