Tuesday 3 October 2017

On Cable - Max Berghouse examines Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's epic series THE VIETNAM WAR

Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
My first in-depth introduction the work of the masterful Ken Burns was his now long ago series The Civil War (USA 1990). I thought then that this was simply the most riveting documentary series I had ever seen, combining extraordinary use of aged photographic material, a musical score subtly highlighting the subject matter and engaging "talking heads" (my favourite Shelby Foote so impressed me that I read much of his oeuvre). I very much appreciated and respected the calm, even and apparently unbiased narrative.

I now realise, from my viewing of the most recent documentary series, The Vietnam War (USA 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) that part at least of my fascination stemmed from my comparative lack of knowledge of the intricacies of the American Civil War. I believed then that I had a thorough grounding in history but it could never compete with that of most Americans, for whom it is a matter of regular study in secondary school, and, as I have been told, it is the subject of the most widely published studies, worldwide in war history. Apparently a year never goes by without multiple revisits of the various battles, articles and the like on issues both public and private, all of which must come to the attention of a very large market in America.

Whether or not this is true in the face of the First World War, "Hitler's War" and perhaps others, I don't know. But certainly there is a large industry creating new interpretations of the American Civil War. Even though the subject in the prior series is clearly history in that there is no one alive to comment first hand on it, most Americans must have seen it more as a dramatic work, in that they were able to stand back from the history, in a way that I was not and probably am not able to do.

The Vietnam War is different in that there are very many people, right around the world who experienced it, if not first-hand in terms of action or activity, then still by relentless observation on television. Many, many have been the commentaries indicating how the television footage was instrumental in shaping public discourse in a way that had never happened previously. Also – and this is used to a very great effect by the director – it's possible to have present-day survivors of the war reflect on their youthful selves and for us to be able to compare the young and the old physical images.

This series has received almost completely, unalloyed praise. Because I am rather less enthusiastic (although I enjoyed the series very much) I ought to indicate that I semi-binge watched the series. But as I watched two or three episodes at a time which meant viewing from between 4 to 6 hours at a time, and I must concede that inevitably concentration lapses and appreciation of the dramatic declines. Mr Burns's narrative style is almost entirely linear, non-intrusive and non-judgmental. He has said in the past that he doesn't "do politics", so perhaps it is unfair of me to criticise him for not doing something that he deliberately eschews. Yet I found that the continuing linear narrative ultimately quite wearying. To some extent this must be my equivalent experience to what I imagine more knowledgeable Americans saw in the previous series The Civil War: they knew the facts, but what they wanted was – meaning.

However, let me first make positive comments where appropriate. The collection and editing of the footage must make this documentary effectively the Ur-text of all documentary footage on the subject. It is a masterly synthesis of what must be vast amounts of material. Although I was very young during the conduct of the war (mid 1960s to mid 1970s) I did follow it closely yet there remains a wealth of material with which I was completely unfamiliar. This was particularly noticeable in relation to episodes one and two which focused on the colonial French period and the first forays of the Americans under President Kennedy. I have to say that this exposition seemed to suffer from the usual liberal unwillingness to project that President as someone who was prepared to put "feet on the ground" had he survived. Again, perhaps this was not the director's intention.

Music which is a combination of popular music of the time (presumably digitally remastered) and original music is exemplary. It very subtly highlights the visuals but is of itself non-intrusive. The script is very lean and to the same effect as the music. The narration by Peter Coyote is clear and precise. His voice tones resemble, at least to me, the late Henry Fonda who always exemplified trustworthiness and reliability. The same applies to Mr Coyote.

In all my criticisms of the issue of "why", I have to bear in mind not only the director' s own artistic predilections but also any requirements placed on him by PBS as well as the manifold number of charitable trusts which contributed to underwrite the series. That said, by midway through the series I experienced moments of real boredom. While there was no individual episode which lacked interest, I became more and more convinced that the director was incapable of following the footage where it best led him. This is very apparent in episodes three to five which focus on President Johnson and his commander-in-chief in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland. Almost endlessly repeated was their adherence to a strategy which had clearly failed.

Lyndon Johnson
President Johnson widely reviled by the Kennedy/Camelot camp, as an ignorant upstart, was an exceptionally gifted politician with an easy and supple ability to change course as necessary. General Westmoreland, tall handsome and muscular – every inch the warrior prince, from an exceptionally successful prior military career, flounders in executing his responsibilities in South Vietnam. Why were these gifted men so utterly unable to change course? Why does not the series at least suggest – through the voices of appropriate professionals – what these alternatives may have been?

North Vietnamese female militia
In these episodes much the same applies to the real if not nominal North Vietnamese leader, Le Duan, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam who from the Tet offensive in 1968 through three  or four other major offensives subsequently, wantonly sacrificed vast numbers of men in an attempt to weaken both US resolve and South Vietnamese resistance. The fact that he was an implacable Communist who was also a complete "chancer" (as is just touched upon in the narrative) was surely worth some commentary. I base this because current views on documentaries are that, whatever one's prior dispositions, during production, one follows the material as it leads.

The next couple of episodes focus on internal ructions within the US itself as opposition to the war builds. There is nothing particularly new here but the editing of footage together with music, is very fine indeed.

The last episodes are more concerned with individuals: their experiences during the war and their reintegration back into society. I regard myself as a "big picture" person and I am vastly more concerned with issues rather than people. That said the limited number of individuals, servicemen and their families, as they were young and in service and as they now appear, was really magnetic. I believe I say this because the "big picture" material up to then had become relatively boring.

Despite being a very young person during the hostilities, I make the mistake of imagining that my experience, or at least my knowledge, is generalised, and that everyone knows what I know. The truth is that there are millions upon millions of people who were born and grew up after "Vietnam" and know effectively nothing about it – notwithstanding Foxtel and its various war documentaries. So to some considerable extent I view this series as "Vietnam History 101". In this sense, the series is virtually faultless.

But, that deeply ingrained sense of the tragedy of human experience which Aristotle described, where actors are simply cursed, and cannot dispute what the gods have resolved, remains for me pressing: why did it happen as it did?

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