Ken Burns' New Documentary Exposes the Emotion Behind the Vietnam War

U.S. Marine Corps soldiers usher suspected Viet Cong members, including one woman, through the rubble of a village in 1965. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are essentially detectives, exposing new layers of entrenched facts about facets of American history, whether it's the Civil War, World War II, jazz, Prohibition or baseball. Their latest film—a typically exhaustive 10-part, 18-hour inquiry into the Vietnam War, written by Geoffrey Ward—turned out to be the most challenging project of their careers, involving 100 interviews over a period of 10 years.

The duo had no way of knowing when they began the project that their documentary would be released during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose short, controversial tenure has been compared to that of Richard Nixon, accused of escalating the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. As Burns tells Newsweek, "What if I told you I'd been working on a film about mass demonstrations against the political administration occurring across the country, about a White House in disarray, about a president convinced that the press is lying and out to get him, about document drops of classified material, about an asymmetrical war and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election?"

I'd say, sounds familiar. And then ask them some questions.

I'm 30 and, like a lot of my generation, don't know much about the Vietnam War. Why should I care?

BURNS: So much of what we're experiencing today—the hyperpartisanship, the divisions between each other, the inability to have a conversation—is the result of seeds planted during the Vietnam War period.

NOVICK: People ask us what anyone under 50 knows about this war, and the answer is, not much. It's shocking how little it's taught in school. It's also contested history, so there's no one book you can go to to bring out the story you're trying to tell. When we make a film, we're trying to tell a good story. In a case like this, it's hard to do. It required a lot of triangulation of multiple sources for us to put together a narrative that makes sense.

How would you characterize your understanding of Vietnam before you embarked on it 10 years ago and now?

BURNS: I don't recognize the person who started this project. I lived through the 1960s as a kid and a teenager, up to being draft-eligible by 1971. You think you know [about it]. You possess the conventional wisdom. [Researching this], almost everything I presumed was turned upside down. Because the war didn't turn out so well for the United States, we tend to ignore it. It's a very contentious topic, which makes it safer not to talk about it. It's no accident that the first English you hear in the film is from a Marine who describes being friends with another couple, and the two wives, after 12 years as friends, learn that their husbands had been Marines in Vietnam, and they hadn't said a word about it. The Marine said it's like living in a family that had an alcoholic father. Shhh—you don't talk about that.

One of the ways this differs from your other war documentaries is the number of primary sources who are still alive. With 100 interviews, how did you decide which to include?

BURNS: We have probably a 40-to-1 or 50-to-1 shooting ratio—we have an 18-hour finished film with hundreds of hours we haven't used, that we're aware of not using. This documentary is not an encyclopedia of the war. What we wish to do is to tell an epic story with lots of primary and secondary and tertiary cameos, and to do it in a fashion in which some stories, like a POW story, will have to stand in for all POW stories. Five Army grunts will have to stand in for the hundreds of thousands of Army grunts who went into Vietnam. It's not that what we didn't use isn't good. Some of it is spectacular; it just didn't fit into that moment.

Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ten-part, 18-hour documentary "The Vietnam War" premieres on PBS on September 17 at 8/7. Maarten de Boer/Getty

Is there an interview that stands out?

BURNS: An Army guy, Mike Haney. I found myself in tears, with him, at the moment of an attack. I had a knot in my stomach from that anxiety as he made this moment become real.

What can policymakers learn from what was happening then?

BURNS: I never think in those terms because I make these films for everybody. For some strange reason, people have an enthusiasm for war. There is something riveting about watching battles; it's the car wreck you slow down for. I just hope the cost of it would give policymakers pause, that it will be a cautionary tale. That ought to be the only reason to investigate wars—except to also prove, paradoxically, that while it brings out the worst in us, it can sometimes bring out the very best. I think our film shows moments of humor and fellowship and courage and great love. I love the idea of love being a byproduct of a film about war.

Part of me is embarrassed by that. Love is a really tough word to say when you're dealing with history and politics and war. But I look back at my films and feel that at the heart of all of them is love.

Are there historical insights that might lend context to America today?

NOVICK: There are many resonances. One of the big questions is, 'What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a citizen of a democracy?' That was a big question being asked during the Vietnam War and is certainly an extraordinarily important question right now.

BURNS: People make a lot of essayistic declarations, and they really go nowhere. Sometimes, you say Vietnam is a negative story of how we came apart. But it could also be the story of a democratic people who say we don't want to do this anymore. You could look at this moment in our history, and maybe this is a phenomenally beautiful test.... This may be a test of our ultimate devotion to the principles on which we were founded.

It's hard to think of this time as something we'll look back on with pride in 50 years.

BURNS: In the early years of Franklin Roosevelt, in the depths of the Depression, as many countries were flipping to a totalitarian thing, the question was, would we also do that? Somebody said to Roosevelt that you're either going to be the best president or the worst president. He said, if I don't succeed, I'm going to be the last president.

The Vietnam War debuts on PBS September 17.