Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” An Emotional and Extraordinary Documentary

Last night I finished watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War.” Ten years in the making, about one of the most controversial periods of American History, it is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever watched. We’re all human, so we can never truly be completely objective but this documentary comes about as close as you can get. Burns, Novick, and company explore not only the American side of the Vietnam War but the Vietnamese side, both North and South as well. The documentary looks at the history of Vietnam and how the United States became involved in the war. It looks at how the American, South Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese governments conducted the war. It examines how the American military, the South Vietnamese military, the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese militaries fought the war. It doesn’t just dwell on American mistakes and problems, it exposes South Vietnamese problems and corruption and North Vietnamese and Communist mistakes and problems. We’re introduced to fighting men and women, officials, and civilians from both sides to and learn about how individuals from and the cultures of all sides were affected by the war; that’s most important, often we see a lot about the American side of the Vietnam War, but in this documentary, we get to see how the South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese viewed the war, how it affected them, and just how similar some of those effects were. The production quality, as expected from a Burns production, is excellent. The use of music in particular – both the original score and the soundtrack of music from the era – is brilliantly used for emotional effect and to provoke thought. The soundtrack songs are perfectly matched to the situations and events they’re associated with.  All of the personalities we’re introduced to through the interviews are compelling, but for me, the most captivating are John Musgrave and Bao Ninh, Musgrave because of the transformation he undergoes through his Vietnam experience and Ninh because of the view he provides from the common North Vietnamese draftee’s perspective. You can read about how the war affected its participants, but when you hear and see the emotion in Lo Khac Tam because he couldn’t bring all of his men home, when you see and hear the raw rage in Ron Ferrizzi as he names those who died so he could receive the medals he’s throwing at the Capitol you can’t help but be moved.  “The Vietnam War” is an emotional, thought-provoking, exceptional documentary about a war that, in the last episode, you come to realize isn’t over in either the United States or Vietnam. Hopefully, it helps bring us to a discussion in which we as a nation can finally come to terms with a war we’ve tried to push into the shadows of History.

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