Plot: There is no single truth in war. This is the tagline for the landmark documentary series The Vietnam War, from filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynne Novick. This piece took over a decade of research and endless work, so it is no surprise it presents an exhaustive and definite experience. The Vietnam War has been covered by countless programs in the past, with seemingly every aspect explored, but Burns and Novick push to provide a one stop, unforgettable presentation. If you’re unfamiliar with a lot of the details, you will be floored by what you witness in this piece, but even those with extensive insight are likely to find themselves enthralled as well. This is a one of a kind, incredible look inside one of the most controversial topics in not just American history, but the world over.
Entertainment Value: This is a ten part series that runs about 18 hours in total, so it is a time commitment, but none of the duration is wasted in the least. The format allows you to watch one episode at a time or run through several, so you can explore this extensive series at your own pace. When I say this is an exhaustive portrait of this event, I mean it, as we start in 1848 and work through World War I, as pieces are put into place and that is just the first episode. This backstory is interesting and adds immense insight, but by the end of that first episode, we are in 1961 and the conflict is underway, so the pace is brisk, but never feels rushed. A vast overview of the war is provided, one that deals with all of the involved sides and every aspect of the conflict, on the battlefield, in the political theater, and of course, the social elements involved. So this is by no means just a look at tactics or the progress of the battles, instead this examines every front involved and in an in depth fashion. A good amount of time is taken to display the political side of this event, which spans multiple presidents and the steps taken at each stage that led to the way things played out.
I think what makes The Vietnam War work so well is how personal it feels, this never comes off like a cold, distant vision of a historical event. Instead, we are given time with dozens and dozens of interview subjects who have intimate ties to the war, as both soldiers and civilians, on both sides of the conflict. To hear these personal stories from those who risked their lives and watched countless colleagues die is intense, really putting a human face to the events. Beyond the soldiers, listening to those who were involved, but only because the war swept across their homes, also adds so much perspective than is otherwise impossible to understand. As I said before, these stories come from Americans, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese, as well as others close to the events, so a wide assortment of views are explored. I know some people dislike the very idea of documentaries, but this one is put together in such a bold, immersive way, even those who don’t normally engage with this kind of content will be enraptured right from the start. The music of the era, television broadcasts, archival recordings, home videos, and a wealth of powerful photographs help keep things in perspective, while also defying the notion that documentaries are dull or lifeless. This is a masterwork of film, an incredible and exhaustive production that provides an unprecedented level of depth and insight into a controversial, unforgettable historical event. If you appreciate history or documentaries even a slight bit, The Vietnam War is a highly recommended, must see level release.