The greatest movie I have ever seen is The Deer Hunter, released in 1978 and starring Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro, among a galaxy of other Hollywood notables. It was gripping, gritty, expertly produced, shudderingly authentic. I never ever want to watch it again.
Like many people, I am absolutely fascinated by media about the Vietnam War – fascinated, and sometimes disgusted or horrified. I am interested in war movies, in general. They represent a huge number of films made since the industry began, to distract the population, to raise morale, or as naked propaganda.
There are classic comedies of resistance: Whisky Galore!, Closely Observed Trains. Thrillers: The Guns of Navarone, Ice Cold in Alex, The Hunt for Red October. Breakthroughs so radical they must have seemed like science fiction: The Dambusters, The First of the Few. But the Vietnam War seems to have cast its own particular spell over people.
The war occupies, I think, the same mental space for some North Americans that World War I used to (and to some extent still does) in Europe. Young, beautiful men and women going off to die in extremely muddy and horrible ways, for a reason which nobody could explain very clearly. A camaraderie that could never be found anywhere else; memories that would insistently return, wherever those people went, for the rest of their lives.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the hundreds of other movies, books and songs written about the Vietnam War – but it does perhaps fill an important gap. It is a very serious, conscientious attempt to tell the story from the beginning, with good historical sources and some criticism, for an audience that may be too young to know very much about it.
Some of the most powerful sequences are the testimonies of soldiers themselves, from both sides of the conflict. It’s disconcerting to realize that first, the war began more than sixty years ago; and second, many of the people who lived through it are still with us. After so many films where actors with fake dentures mumble about buying little farms back home, it’s revelatory to see the real people here. They speak clearly, without mincing words. They do not always say what we want them to.
It’s an interesting piece of film work in itself, because I’ve rarely watched a documentary that is so long. This one was produced by PBS, which is a bit of specialist in documentary content; but still, 10 episodes of more than 90 minutes each is unusual. It gives Burns and Novick the space to examine details which are often forgotten. My ignorance is embarrassing: I had absolutely no idea that British troops had been involved at one point, or that Ho Chi Minh was a person and not just a trail. (My history lessons tended to focus on Henry VIII, or the Ancient Egyptians.)
The length of the episodes – which, I hasten to add, are not dull even if the runtime sounds intimidating – also reflects the length of the war. It must have seemed eternal for the people in it. Leader after leader, on all sides, came to the conclusion that peace would be too difficult to explain to the voters. Important diplomatic letters went missing. There was bad faith and bad luck. Things would drag on for almost twenty years.
The few complaints I have are the same complaints I have against every documentary. I wish directors would label real footage, reconstruction, and propaganda films distinctly; the boundaries are often blurred. It makes me mistrust the voiceover. I’d like to know more about the talking heads than the city they’re speaking from: what about their location on the political map? What have they been doing since the war?
I’m jumping the gun here, because I still have several more episodes to watch. But so far, the content has been thought-provoking enough that I was already keen to write the documentary up. If you have time to spare and are serious about history, I recommend it; otherwise you might well look for something lighter.