Ken Burns’ latest documentary, which premieres Sept. 17 on PBS, is a deep dive into a subject he thinks Americans have ignored for too long. “We have a kind of historical amnesia about Vietnam,” he says, comparing this war, in which millions died, to “an amputated limb that still itches, still aches” — painful and invisible.
Burns points to a veteran interviewed in the film who spent 12 years in a friendship before discovering that his buddy had also been in combat in Vietnam; the subject had never come up.
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So Burns and codirector Lynn Novick got people to talk. Over a decade, they researched and interviewed more than 100 Americans and Vietnamese people — from helicopter pilots, POWs and politicians to Gold Star families, demonstrators and deserters. With the accompanying archival footage (some of it brutal) and a soundtrack of some 120 songs from the era (including cuts by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin), the filmmakers hope the documentary will transport viewers back in time in a very real, constructive way and “make sense of the chaos,” as Novick puts it.
The film does raise questions, says Burns: “Did we have to fight a proxy war against the communists halfway around the world? And you can’t really answer it, you just have to sort of take a look at it and let people decide for themselves.” (The series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 19, with more than 100 minutes of bonus footage not airing on TV.)
So what subject will Burns take on next? He’s deep into a two-part documentary for PBS on Ernest Hemingway, as well as another big multi-episode series, this one on the history of country music, both planned for 2019 at the earliest. Says Burns: “I never make films about things I know about. I make films about things I want to know about.”