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Ken Burns Tackles Vietnam

The filmmaker and his co-director, Lynn Novick, hope their new documentary will help Americans finally discuss the divisive war

A documentarian who has tackled some of the most significant events and people in American history — the Dust Bowl, the Civil War, the Roosevelts — has taken on a doozy of a subject in his 10-part, 18-hour The Vietnam War.



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.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University. Ohio, May 4, 1970.

John Filo/Getty Images

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in 1970.



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.”

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