Film and TV

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Talk About Why the Vietnam War Matters Today

Ken Burns came to Houston to talk about his new documentary epic.
Ken Burns came to Houston to talk about his new documentary epic. Photo by Houston Public Media/John Lewis
They say there was a time in this country when people actually talked to each other rather than at each other. That people looked for common ground instead of common insults. That we were one country united as opposed to two countries coexisting in the same cities and towns. How did we get here? Perhaps it’s time to revisit another time when an unprecedented number of Americans took to the streets in protest: The Vietnam War.

“It’s the most important event in the second half of the 20th century, and most of the divisions we experience today in the United States metastasized during Vietnam,” says Ken Burns, the legendary documentarian behind The Civil War, among many other award-winning productions. “Our inability to come together, to compromise, to have a civil discourse has its roots in what happened with Vietnam.”

Hitting the small screen September 17, The Vietnam War is a ten-part, 18-hour production from Burns and co-director Lynn Novick that tells the tale of the war that most, even today, don’t want to talk about. For them, that’s the problem: By choosing not to talk about the war, we as a country can never truly face how it affected us.

There have been countless books written, documentaries produced and stories told about the Vietnam War, but judging by what we saw last night at the Cullen Performance Hall, there’s reason to believe that Burns and Novick have something special here. There are few humans living who are better at taking war and doing the emotional archeology needed to turn the violence into more than just statistics.
The introduction to The Vietnam War is intense, a literal rewind through history, through moments that you’ve likely seen time and time again, all to an aggressive score that really heightens the emotions (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails contribute to the score). It was incredibly effective, the type of opening that grabs you and demands you pay attention.

The audience was also shown clips from the middle of the series that all seemed strong enough on their own, glimpses of the 80 characters that the documentary follows in its ten episodes. It was the last clip that was the standout, a look at the creation and response to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was a near end-of-Band-of-Brothers-level tear jerker that had many in the audience teary-eyed.

It’s a project that has been in development for the duo for a decade, and while it seems to be coming along at perhaps the time the nation most needs it, for Burns and Novick this isn’t about putting the blame on one side or the other.

“This is about tragic mistakes made by many presidents from both political parties.”

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“This is about tragic mistakes made by many presidents from both political parties,” said Burns.

It’s not just about the American perspective either. The United States was not the only party involved in the war, and our soldiers are not the only ones reluctant to talk about what happened. Get either side to talk, however, and you find out that we really are all just human.

“The war was terrible for everybody, in different ways but some of the same ways,” explains Novick. “There’s just a basic human experience of war that everyone on all sides had to partake in.”

Burns adds, “William Tecumseh Sherman actually said, ‘War is all hell.’

He’s absolutely right. Absolutely right.”

Part 1 of The Vietnam War airs September 17 on Houston Public Media TV 8 and PBS stations nationwide.
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Cory Garcia is a Contributing Editor for the Houston Press. He once won an award for his writing, but he doesn't like to brag about it. If you're reading this sentence, odds are good it's because he wrote a concert review you don't like or he wanted to talk pro wrestling.
Contact: Cory Garcia