“This is war. This is what we do.”
When Capt. Roger Harris of the Marine Corps was asked how he coped with the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians throughout the war during Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series “The Vietnam War,” this was his response.
Harris’ response acts as a telling indicator of the psychological torment and normalized brutality endured by both Americans and Vietnamese alike. This, among the film’s reception and aspects of its cinematography, were some of the points of discussion that Northwestern History Professor Michael J. Allen, Northwestern Radio/Television/Film (RTVF) professor Kyle Henry and University of Chicago history professor Mark Philip Bradley spoke about during a Vietnam War discussion panel on Tuesday.
The three speakers took turns deconstructing the various flaws and strengths of the documentary series to offer a nuanced critique that focused on the historicity, technical skill, and presentation of the various elements that Burns and Novick offered.
Allen noted a few of the problems with the documentary, referring to the film series as being a liberal project that tries to reconstruct parts of America’s national identity, but falls short. For example, Burns and Novick try to make a “moral equivalency” between the suffering endured by American Prisoners of War (POW) and Vietnamese POWs.
Allen critiqued how the documentary’s portrayal of a Vietnamese woman whose husband and sons died is immediately followed by an American woman, who lost one son. According to Allen, although both women experienced genuine loss, to equate on with the other was a false comparison, because the levels of suffering were far different.
Bradley touched upon this same comparison idea, noting that the interviews with Vietnamese subjects were never as fleshed out as their American counterparts. Bradley does, however, praise Novick and Burns for “telling powerful, individual stories in compelling ways” by focusing on case studies of various individuals, both American and Vietnamese, aligned with the war effort.
He also noted that the pair described the war in neutral, historically supported terms.
“Vietnam does not emerge as the necessary war,” Bradley said. “[The documentary] was no revisionist history, [and depicted the war] as a colossal mistake.”
Henry took a more cinematographic and technical view of the documentary from a filmmaker’s perspective. He, however, focused on the lack of a “big picture,” saying that he was never sure of the film’s purpose, even adding that the documentary tried to put the horrors of Vietnam in the past.
“[The documentary] was a story about trauma trying to put trauma to bed,” Henry said.
All three agreed that Burns and Novick excelled at certain aspects of the series, namely the strength of the oral histories, and the compellingness that they directors evoked in the audience.
At the same time, as Henry noted, some technical aspects of the film left a lot to be desired, including narrator Peter Coyote’s voiceover, which gave the film a false sense of authority, even saying, in the words of Bradley, that the video production was “like a bad senior thesis” in its lack of sophistication.
Although Henry and Bradley were more negative of Burns and Novick filmmakers, they also provided constructive, substantive criticism on Burns’s body of work.
“I always thought of [Burns] as a really great filmmaker who did a really great job and was very historical about what he did. A lot of what the panelists were saying was making me rethink Ken Burns as an artist, and Ken Burns as a vehicle through which we experience history,” Weinberg Freshman Cameroon Cook said.