He’s a documentarian who redefined the genre to such a degree that there’s a specific camera move named after him, so you would expect Ken Burns to bring a fresh take to a subject that has been covered in great detail from the 1960s onward. The Vietnam War looms huge in our culture, not only influencing art, music and film, but continuing to have an impact on the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of the people who fought and lived through it.
There have been many strong documentaries on the conflict, including Australia’s own Frontline (1979) and All the Way (2011), both of which offered a uniquely Antipodean perspective on Vietnam. But Burns’ – and co-director Lynn Novick’s – 10-hour epic is on a very different scale, as you’d expect from that runtime.
LISTEN: Ken Burns talks 'The Vietnam War' in a special episode of The Playlist podcast
Beginning with France’s colonial adventures in 19th-century South East Asia before moving through the decades to America’s proxy war against the USSR, it can be a very stressful series to watch... especially if you’re inclined to binge-viewing.
Created over 10 years, The Vietnam War is a fresh, hyper-detailed look at the macro geopolitical causes that shaped this conflict. It ensures the boots-on-the-ground story is also told in heartbreaking, gruesome detail. As with the majority of his work, the focus here is on the American experience – but Burns is careful to balance the perspectives of as many stakeholders as possible: both pro- and anti-war, military and government, South and North Vietnamese, journalists and secret agents.
What you may get from this, in contrast to so many documentaries about the Vietnam War, is the overwhelming sense of what it was like to be there at the time. In giving weight to so many disparate perspectives, even a viewer born in 1980 can feel the deeply stressful pull of the quagmire that leaders, soldiers, protesters and even everyday citizens found themselves in.
Whether it's incorporating the broader picture of events like the 1970 Kent State shooting (of unarmed US college students protesting against the war) or the realpolitik recordings that led Richard Nixon to scuttle then-President Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks because didn’t want his political rival to get the credit, The Vietnam War has the scope to tell a far larger story than any of its predecessors. Where other filmmakers would have to cut, they can expand.
All history is a narrative. The broad strokes of this era are the ones we all know through sheer cultural osmosis. In the end, you can only build towards one resolution. Where Burns and Novick have succeeded is in delving into the vast variety of points of view to show how none of the events depicted had simple causes or effects. They were all muddied by human weakness, fear and venality that makes for such good storytelling – and such devastating reality.
Even if you know the story of the Vietnam War, you haven’t seen this version.
The Vietnam War is now streaming at SBS On Demand.