To tell the true story of the conflict, Lynn Novick and Ken Burns had to revisit old wounds in the United States and Vietnam.
Alyssa Rosenberg Washington Post
When you make plans to watch a Ken Burns documentary, you often have to clear out a lot of DVR space: 11 hours for “The Civil War,” 14 hours for “The Roosevelts” and, starting on Sept. 17, 18 hours for “The Vietnam War.”
But as sprawling as these series can be — “The Vietnam War” starts in 1858 and continues onward — the more you learn about the process of making them, the more reasonable those running times sound. “The Vietnam War” took 10 years to come together. Because it was shot in both the United States and in Vietnam, it was a more logistically complex film, one that required co-director Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein to figure out how to work in a different and less free country, and to do their interviews in translation. And because “The Vietnam War” addresses recent and still contested history, making the series was an unusually demanding process.
Burns, Novick and their colleagues had to confront their own memories and preconceptions about the war, sorting out their personal mythologies from the facts. They had to step back from the mountain of books and movies about the conflict so that they could see more clearly what stories hadn’t been told. And then they had to persuade both Americans and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians to share stories about their experiences and reopen debates that remain painful and unresolved 42 years after the last U.S. personnel departed Vietnam.
Burns, who was 11 when American ground troops landed in Vietnam in 1965, grew up feeling divided about the conflict. His father, Robert Burns Jr., taught in the anthropology department at the University of Michigan, where his colleague Marshall Sahlins eventually came up with the idea of the “teach-in.” The wide-ranging forum on the war, held on the Michigan campus in March 1965, would become a model for similar events around the country. Burns’s father attended the teach-in, though Burns himself remembers little about it. Burns was preoccupied with his mother’s illness; just a month later, Lyla Burns died after a long struggle with breast cancer.
While reviewing footage of the teach-in that they planned to use in the series, Burns asked researchers to identify a professor who spoke on camera. They discovered that it was Eric Wolf, Robert Burns Jr.’s best friend, who along with his wife took care of Burns and his brother, Ric, the night their mother died.
Vietnam would become less abstract to Burns as he and the war grew up together.
Born in 1953, Burns received a draft number in the Feb. 2, 1972, lottery. While making “The Vietnam War,” Burns uncovered letters he had written at the time exploring the possibility of obtaining conscientious-objector status. Though it seemed unlikely that he would succeed because he was not a regular churchgoer, it was the best option in a situation where the other choices were Canada or jail. Today, Burns isn’t sure which of those options he would have chosen had the draft not ended almost a year later. A producer on “The Vietnam War” discovered that Burns had misremembered his own draft number. Despite the anxiety he remembers feeling, Burns was probably safe from the draft by the time he left for college.
Above: A young Ken Burns with his father, Robert Burns Jr., at home in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Courtesy of Ken Burns)
For Novick, born in 1962, the war was a permanent feature of her childhood landscape. Her father was involved in scientific opposition to the war in Vietnam, particularly against the use of toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange. By the time she was old enough to be aware of her parents’ anxieties about the war and the deliberations of older boys about how to handle the draft, Novick saw the cynicism engendered by the war and by Watergate as normal.
Burns and Novick knew from the beginning that making the version of “The Vietnam War” they envisioned, involving reporting in both the United States and Vietnam and sifting through emerging historical research on the conflict, would take a decade.
They began by listing the sorts of experiences they hoped to chronicle. How did American, North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers experience the same battles? What was it like to protest the war when that was a marginal position and to see that dissent swell into a mass movement? What did it mean to have your family divided, whether by death, disagreement over which Vietnamese government to support, or desperation to avoid the draft?
After reading the book, Novick and Botstein drove to New York to spend a day with Crocker and learned that her daughter Carol, Denton’s younger sister, had joined the antiwar movement in college. Novick says Crocker didn’t take the decision to participate in the documentary lightly. When she did agree, it was in the hopes that sharing her experiences would help other Gold Star families. The Crockers became one of the key stories that tie “The Vietnam War” together.
Revealing as that story is, it couldn’t stand in for the experiences of all the South and North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Burns credits Novick with the insight that “The Vietnam War” couldn’t be only an American story — in order to tell America’s story at all, the filmmakers would need to talk to our former allies and adversaries in Vietnam, a task more complicated than anything Florentine Films, Burns’s production company, had attempted in the United States.
President Bill Clinton normalized diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam in 1995. But making a film of this scale, especially one that asked veterans of both the North and South to explore some of the most difficult moments of the conflict, was still a delicate operation.
To navigate the Vietnamese bureaucracy, Burns and Novick turned to Thomas Vallely, a Marine veteran who had returned to Vietnam in 1985 to shoot a campaign ad highlighting his military service when he ran for Congress. The country became a passion that outlasted Vallely’s political career. He brought other American veterans back to Vietnam for reunions with their former opponents. In 1989, Vallely founded Harvard University’s Vietnam Program, and in 1994, he established the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City.
That long relationship, Vallely says, means his programs in Vietnam operate with unusual political freedom. In turn, Vallely used his credibility to vouch for Burns and Novick with the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That support, and the tacit approval of the Ministry of Defense, got Novick and Botstein permission to do interviews in Vietnam and reassured provincial veterans’ associations and individual interviewees about cooperating with the American filmmakers.
Ho’s participation in the film would prove critical. Casualty rates among North Vietnamese troops were so high that many soldiers who went south between 1963 and 1966 did not survive. Record-keeping was sketchy, and North Vietnamese units were combined and given new names as the war progressed. Novick and Botstein were more interested in the experiences of ordinary soldiers than those of generals, and they wanted to interview people from all over the country, not merely from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Ho said Novick also gravitated to veterans who had not repeatedly told their stories in Vietnamese media, worried that because of the country’s censorship, well-known veterans “may have told a decorated story, but not the true story.”
The result was what Wilkinson describes as a kind of detective work. Ho attended informal veterans’ reunions and followed recommendations and leads in newspaper articles to find people who had fought at battles such as Ap Bac and Ia Drang, a pair of fierce early clashes.
Novick came away from her interviews in Vietnam with a fresh sense of how deadly the war had been and how difficult each day had been for the soldiers who fought in it. One soldier told her a story that didn’t make it into the final film about what it was like when he returned home in 1975, having departed the North in 1967 when he was just 19 years old.
“His brother was waiting for him at the airport, but he didn’t recognize his own brother because he’d been away so long. He didn’t know what his mother looked like. And when he went home to his village, his mother couldn’t believe it because she has basically, after so many years of hearing not one word from him, has essentially decided that he had probably died,” Novick explains. “Those are just things that are kind of unimaginable for most Americans and certainly for me.”
Back in the United States, obtaining the rights to the archival footage that is so critical to the series required the filmmakers to address unresolved feelings about how Vietnam has settled into historical memory.
To get permission from NBC to use the rarely licensed video footage shot by cameraman Vo Suu of a South Vietnamese brigadier general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing National Liberation Front combatant Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street, an event documented in Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, the filmmakers had to promise to show the footage exactly as viewers would have seen it on the nightly news in 1968.
Conducting dozens of interviews in America and Vietnam, assembling 25,000 photographs and securing the rights to 120 pop songs is only the first stage of making a documentary like “The Vietnam War.”
To calibrate the series once they had rough cuts of the episodes, Burns and Novick staged numerous screenings for people who had been interviewed, historians, representatives of various archives, outside advisers and Florentine staff. In 2016, I was allowed to sit in on several of these screenings and the critique sessions that followed, and to accompany Burns, Novick and Botstein into the editing booth. These events could be charged affairs. Because the material was so sensitive, and she was so concerned how the subjects and their families would react to the end result, Botstein said she suffered regular bouts of insomnia on the nights preceding them. At the screenings I attended, viewers regularly wept all the way through the episodes, which often run almost two hours long.
At the screenings I attended, viewers regularly wept all the way through the episodes, which often run almost two hours long.
Sometimes addressing the audience’s feedback was as simple as giving them a few more seconds of a completely black screen to allow them time to process an exceptionally disturbing image. Other changes were more extensive: Fredrik Logevall, a history professor at Harvard University who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of French involvement in Vietnam, “Embers of War,” pushed Burns and Novick to spend more time on France, arguing that audiences needed to understand how the United States had repeated that country’s mistakes. Some questions, including the use of the word “murder” to describe war crimes such as the massacre in the hamlet of My Lai, were fraught.
For all the refining they’ve done, Burns and Novick expect that the response to the film will be complex: Thomas Vallely says a friend who saw “The Vietnam War” described it as “the re-education camp for America,” not in that viewers would be forced to watch it, but in that it upends so many preconceptions about the war. In preparation for its Sept. 17 premiere, Burns and Novick screened clips of the documentary and conducted discussions about it all over the country.
There are some divisions that no series, no matter how well made, can heal. But just as Burns and Novick hope will happen in the wider world, conversations begun in those screening sessions have continued beyond them. Philip Gioia, who won a Silver Star in Vietnam, began an email correspondence with Craig McNamara, the son of former defense secretary Robert McNamara, about the events leading up to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and McNamara’s understanding of his father’s decisions. McPeak has had occasional get-togethers with Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine who wrote the novel “Matterhorn,” which was inspired by his experiences in Vietnam. Novick has relayed messages between American veterans, like Matt Harrison, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and Vietnamese veterans who fought in the same battles and are eager to learn about each other’s experiences. And Novick was surprised — and gratified — by her own father’s reaction.
“The other day he said to me, ‘You know I’ve been thinking a lot about how I was really wrong to blame the soldiers for what was happening in Vietnam. I feel terrible about that,’ ” she says. “And I will just say that my dad does not change his mind about too many things.”