Fear is an emotion capable of producing salvation or destruction. In the case of the Vietnam War, as this documentary series demonstrates, fear caused the latter. The fear that other nations in the East (besides China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea) would adopt Communism as their political system and influence others nearby caused a devastating war between America and Vietnam.
Adding one more gem to his extensive resume as a documentarian, Ken Burns with Lynn Novick as co-director, has created a 10 episode monumental series that explain masterfully the causes, consequences, and horrors of one of the bloodiest and most senseless wars in modern history.
Avoiding the usual dull lecturing of this type of historical films, actor Peter Coyote narrates the events with the help of plenty newly enhanced high-quality video and audio sources from the extensive vault of news of the period. Some major and minor key protagonists from both sides of the conflict give their accounts throughout the entire series. We hear the American perspective, but for the first time we also hear the Vietnamese one. We watch the brutality,the appalling events, the false premises, the blunders, the miscalculations and excesses in a war that lasted too long.
Not only important details such as Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s background are revealed, but essential voices are given the opportunity to tell us their story. Some of them are surviving soldiers, relatives of those killed in action, and some politicians responsible for the war. The directors also cover specially the decisive battles and how they were fought.
The fascinating history is complemented with glimpses of other events that surrounded the war. From the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Struggle to the Anti and Pro-War Marches.
In addition to the original score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Russ, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the soundtrack features contemporary emblematic songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and many more. The music is used effectively transporting the viewer to the scenes and feelings the series is trying to communicate.
The documentary presents the facts without judgement and answers many questions of why and how. However, other questions remain unanswered. Questions we will need to answer one day. I am still struggling with two: How much do we need to trust our elected officials when they call for war? How come our “democracy” couldn’t prevent nor stop the carnage for years?
Let this series be a warning for the following generations to avoid the fear, the ignorance, and the arrogance of our predecessors.
See also directed by Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson (2016), The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014), The Central Park Five (2012), Baseball (1994-2010), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004).