By Will Barber Taylor
In an immersive narrative Ken Burns and Lynn Novick tell the epic story of the Vietnam War as it has never been told on film. The Vietnam War features testimony from nearly 80 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war and the others who opposed it as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides. It features new, original music written and recorded by Academy Award winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The Vietnam War rounds out a trilogy of Florentine Films’ exploration of American wars that began with Burns’ landmark The Civil War (1990), followed by Burns and Novick’s acclaimed seven-part series about World War II, The War (2007). It takes you into the heart of one of the most controversial and destructive conflicts of the 20th century and gives you a full picture of why it happened.
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive conflicts in US history. From being initially popular to becoming almost universally derided, the War helped demonstrate the failure of the US to come to terms with other countries and whilst attempting to be a bastion of anti-imperialism became as bad as previous colonisers. In many ways, Vietnam was the moment when American domination suffered its first blow.
This is perfectly and beautifully illustrated in Kevin Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. Given how often the subject has been dealt with, it’s refreshing and exciting to see a series that brings a fresh take to the war. Instead of viewing the it from a purely American perspective, Burns and Novick begin by explaining Vietnamese history and the first episode covers Vietnam’s battle with the French government who, after the Second World War wanted to retain Vietnam as a colony. Burns and Novick beautifully juxtaposition the war as the French experienced it with the experience of the Americans. The drawing of clear parallels between the situation that the French and the Americans demonstrates that, though America attempted to wear the mantel of democracy and anti-imperialism, their desire to stamp out the threat of communism ended with them engaged in an imperialistic war.
The films demonstration of the Vietnamese political situation is incredibly detailed and, rather than limiting themselves to a portrayal of the Viet Com or Ho Chi Minh, explores the full depth and complexity of Vietnamese politics; the difference between the North and South, the split between pro Nationalists and pro Communists and how both groups attempted to use the US to gain what they wanted. Burns and Novick’s detailed and incisive look at Vietnamese politics therefore adds to our full understanding of the war and how it affected US and world politics.
The episode covering Kennedy’s involvement with the war is particularly interesting – it shows how an enthusiastic and idealistic politician became bogged down by a war that any President would have found difficult, if not impossible, to win. It also portrays JFK is a fascinating new light and the series should be purchased simply to see the episode on Kennedy.
The use of music – both original by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – and the use of music from the era help to create a wonderful atmosphere. The whole series feels like an Oscar worthy film; deeply depressing, up lifting, surprising and ultimately thought provoking. This is partly thanks to the score and partly because of the superb editing.
The Vietnam War is the definitive TV series on the war. It cannot be equalled in scope, depth or emotional power. It fully shows the horror of a war that defined a generation and brought down two Presidents. Burns and Novick should be proud that they have created a series that is a testament to the futility of war and the power of film.
You can pre order The Vietnam War now on the Simply Media website – the series will be released on the 30th of October. With thanks to Simply Media. An edited version of the series is currently airing on BBC 4 and you can catch up on the BBC iPlayer here.