Historical documentaries suck. Not because they’re long and boring, but because they’re too short, too uninformative, and full of lazy storytelling. Crappy documentaries make history feel intangible, as if the past is a fairy tale with a beginning, middle, and end. One of the few exceptions, as far as I can tell, is Ken Burn’s and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War begins by acknowledging that human history, and the history of brutality, are often a lot longer than we like to imagine. It starts in 1858, nearly a century before the United States entered Vietnam, and about 30 years before the area and its inhabitants were formally colonized by France. Most documentaries on Vietnam start in the 1950s because of time constraints, but The Vietnam War is an 18-hour series, so it has plenty of time to set the scene for our decades-long conflict.
That said, the docuseries could just as well start in 1500, at the beginning of western colonialism. Anyone familiar with U.S. history will notice parallels between our revolutionary war and Vietnam’s struggle against Western occupation. A comparison isn’t explicitly stated in the documentary, but hey, you have a lot of time to think during The Vietnam War‘s 18-hour runtime.
Am I getting ahead of myself? The Vietnam War is a collaboration between Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Their historical documentaries are known for being super long, detailed, and a bit demoralizing. Anyone who graduated after 1990 was probably forced to watch the Civil War in school, and you’ve probably run into a Ken Burns documentary on Jack Johnson or the history of jazz while fumbling through YouTube or watching PBS.
Don’t run away yet! Unlike The Civil War, which is basically just an 11-hour long Powerpoint, The Vietnam War features newly restored footage, photos, and audio clips. For that reason, it might be the most intoxicating Ken Burns documentary that I’ve seen yet. Even the psychedelic music and protest songs that back the docuseries contribute to its story, and they feel much more meaningful when accompanied by the voices and the visions of their time.
Do the songs of Jimi Hendrix speak for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians? Of course not. As always, The Vietnam War is a documentary from America’s perspective. But to its credit, the docuseries features new interviews with Vietnamese historians, soldiers from the north and south of Vietnam, and civilians who managed to survive the conflict.
I believe that these interviews carry the docuseries. Not just because they provide a perspective that’s usually ignored, but because they force viewers to see the first-hand social and political effects of occupation, violence, and cultural destruction. How do people react when they’re starved and controlled by a foreign power? What happens when you cherry-pick a people’s political leaders? And how do these lessons reflect on U.S. foreign policy over the last decade?
Those questions may be easy to answer today, but the water gets murky once you get a good look at the complicated war in Vietnam. I wish I had more to say about The Vietnam War, but I can’t do it justice, so you’ll have to fire it up on Netflix and watch for yourself. After a few brutal episodes (and they are very brutal), you’ll have trouble answering questions that used to be simple.