In a culture of flash-in-the-pan internet sensations, of insta-memes and GIFs as news, the long-form, episodic films of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick serve as sweeping acts of defiance. While everyone else is rushing to judgment, time is on their side. Burns and Novick first collaborated on 1990’s The Civil War, a cultural phenomenon that cemented the pictorial-historical-poetic style they would use to approach topics as diverse as baseball, jazz, and World War II. This month, the duo releases the 10-part, 18-hour The Vietnam War on PBS—a project a decade in the making that still somehow feels intensely of the moment. That’s partly due to the project’s rigorously present-tense approach—it views the escalation of conflict chronologically, making every wrong move and miscalculation sting anew. But it’s also because of how unresolved Vietnam remains in the American consciousness, such that its tragedies continue to influence politics, policies, protests, and identities. Burns and Novick called in to Hemispheres to discuss the challenges of making the definitive documentary about one of cinema’s most exhausted subjects.
It has been more than 40 years since the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Why release this film now?
Ken Burns: The Vietnam War exists in two places: as this incredibly fraught moment in our past—Lynn and I believe it’s the most important event in American history in the second half of the 20th century—and in the present moment as a repressed memory, as a dark closet full of memories, as a kind of beast that negatively affects our discourse. I think a good deal of why we experience so much disunion today has its seeds in Vietnam. We know from our experiences with The Civil War and The War [about World War II] that we will open up memories and hopefully conversations that will permit people to have some place where they can find some peace about the war.
While the events of the Vietnam War have echoed through the intervening years, you don’t let those echoes define the events. Do you have to work against that impulse?
KB: History is a funny thing. It’s not just about those past events. History is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. And so it can’t help but be informed, however consciously or subconsciously, by our interests, by our fears and anxieties, by our hopes and dreams. But our job is to go back and try to figure out what happened, and to do it from a lot of different perspectives, not to put our thumb on the scale and say, “This is the conclusion. This is the lesson.” We know, particularly in war, that it’s possible for more than one truth to coexist. And so our mandate was to ask questions of 50 different Americans, but also of North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese, of Vietcong guerrillas and civilians. Just the act of doing that will, as you so very accurately said, produce those echoes.
Lynn Novick: What’s happening in our particular political moment and in the various military engagements we’re involved in seems very relevant to the story. But Ken and I have been thinking about the Vietnam War for as long as we’ve been working together, which is almost 30 years. We decided to make the film in 2006, which was a very different historical moment. And as we worked on the film, present circumstances have evolved, which of course informs how everyone we’ve spoken to thinks about Vietnam. We consciously don’t refer to the present. But it’s right below the surface for a lot of people.
I expect the Vietnam War was the first war you have personal memories of, and that those memories help to define the way you look at other wars, and the films you’ve made about them.
KB: I grew up with Vietnam; I had a high draft number. We thought having lived through it would make it easier to make the film. It actually was a daily humiliation of what we didn’t know. And that was good, because it helped us to release ourselves—and, we hope, our audience—from the tyranny of preconception and conventional wisdom. When confronted with new information—say, about leadership struggles in Hanoi, or what actually happened at the Gulf of Tonkin, or what the realities of combat were not just for American GIs but for a Vietcong guerrilla and a North Vietnamese civilian—you can shatter those preconceptions.
How do you represent those complicated stories while also creating a narrative across the whole series?
LN: We chose to tell the story from the bottom up, which meant finding people and then organizing our narratives around personal stories. This has been our most challenging project because it’s such an enormously complicated, multi-layered, painful, and unresolved war. You’re trying to make meaning out of something that really defies your ability to do so.
KB: There’s a kind of discipline in not taking that easy route, in tolerating complication, in tolerating undertow. Wynton Marsalis, who’s in Jazz, said, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time.” Resisting the desire to judge and decide—that’s our work.
Were people eager to talk?
LN: It’s such a painful experience no matter who you are—if you protested the war, if you wrestled with your conscience and went to Canada, if you served in a war that was unpopular and came home to an unwelcoming country. I would say most people were not super-eager. I would say they were willing.
KB: It was an extraordinary honor, but also a deep responsibility, to listen to and bear witness to people expressing memories, sometimes for the first time. If they are willing to perform this kind of open-heart surgery on themselves, we ought to be damn well sure we’re not going to manipulate, exploit, or use it for some short-term political gotcha thing.
In addition to the different perspectives you offer from Americans there are the voices of Vietnamese people who lived through the war. I think that’s new for an American audience.
LN: We’ve worked very hard not to make the mistake most Americans make when thinking about the Vietnam War—to only think about Americans. That was deeply meaningful to us as filmmakers, but also appears to come through to people who’ve seen the film. I was doing an event with [a U.S. veteran] the other day. He said, “I’d never really given that much thought to what our enemies were thinking, or to the people that we were fighting with—or for. We couldn’t speak their language. We didn’t know what was going on with them. And for the first time, after 50 years, I’m hearing from them in their own language what they felt and thought.” For many people who were actually in Vietnam, this is a seminal experience.
Did you watch other Vietnam War films to prepare?
KB: I will look at raw footage ’til the cows come home. But when we begin a project on a subject, I will not look at another film. Full stop. If Apocalypse Now or Platoon is on TV, I will not watch it. Not that I’m worried about being influenced—I just don’t want to have my decisions on a scene based on the way somebody else handled a moment we’re covering, whether it’s a documentary or feature film. I want to be free to do what I think is the best thing for our scene.
LN: I tend to immerse myself in all the books that I possibly can. And then you try to just hold on to all this information, which is contradictory and complex, and carry it through. Our films are made in chapters, and in a way, it is like a big Russian novel.
Few would have predicted a Ken Burns/Nine Inch Nails collaboration. How did Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross come on board to write the score?
KB: Trent and Atticus had seen in us, and we in them, a similar sort of fanatical devotion to this process.
LN: It was a really interesting challenge, because they’d never worked on a project like this. We gave them mood themes and ideas and showed them some raw interview footage, and they came back with this glorious, complicated, devastating, profound music. It just came into a Dropbox one day. They’re deep thinkers and technically enormously talented, but we don’t know how they did it, to be honest.
The advantage of making a film about Vietnam over one about the Civil War or World War II is that Vietnam was so well recorded. But that doesn’t mean the material is easily accessible. Did you face any challenges in gathering footage?
KB: Many of the archives have a table in front, so to speak—a
smorgasbord of familiar pieces. But we’re asking them for the outtakes of the newsreel. A classic example of that is the familiar shot of one soldier falling at Omaha Beach. We were able to identify the newsreel it was originally shown in and went back to the original negative, where we found several more seconds in which you see other soldiers falling. And it exponentially amplifies the pain and the bravery and the courage of that moment.
LN: You can’t imagine how excited our colleagues get when we are able to find something missing, the extra frame or two. There are hurrahs around our office when these things happen.
KB: [Another] Vietnam documentary is going to show only the words “You, the great silent majority” in Nixon’s speech in November of 1969. It’s only going to show “I will not accept the nomination of my party” in LBJ’s abdication in ’68. But what if you open it up and you hear much more of that speech? A greater and more abiding wisdom comes from permitting all the sides to happen—from liberating ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom.
And you have to give yourself the room to reckon with the truth and all its complications, even if it takes a decade to get there.
KB: We take a long time. I mean, three years ago, this thing was super well-formed. And the question is, why didn’t you get it out that September? Or the following September? And the point is that we actually need to go through even more revisions. And even more fact-checking. And even more learning. We’re not impatient. We want to make sure that this will last for a while.