Every couple of years Ken Burns delivers an expansive multi-part documentary on yet another subject that matters (or should) to the American people. Tellingly, most of them are masterworks and almost every one of them would stand as the career best of a lesser talent. It seems like only yesterday when critics were saying that about The Civil War, or The War, or The Roosevelts. This year we are unanimous in our praise of The Vietnam War, which like so many of Burns’ projects proved instantly essential to our understanding of what we were, who we are and who we may be going forward.
Many of us grew up watching the devastating conflict in Vietnam play out every night on the broadcast networks’ nightly news shows. (In our house the horror was brought to us by Walter Cronkite, with supplementary coverage in Life magazine.) The broadcasters’ news divisions also took frequent deep dives into the corrosive impact of the war here at home. The Vietnam War also prompted wide-ranging remembrances of that time … especially of young people, including children, being exposed to the grim realities of war on television and in other media. (Remarkably, we survived this.) War reportage is totally sanitized today, which tends to obscure everything about it. We now have to rely on scripted entertainment such as National Geographic’s The Long Road Home to experience reality.
Burns’ latest is a reminder of how devastating and divisive the Vietnam conflict really was; a fact that may be lost on Gen X, Millennials and Gen Zers. Everything about it was ugly – not that all war isn’t, but in this case Americans at home shamefully decided to take out their anger, fear and frustration on Vietnam veterans, rather than thanking them for their service.
Even when Burns and his longtime co-producer and co-director Lynn Novick take on the darkest of subjects there are nostalgic elements to their documentaries, especially the music on their soundtracks. There is also a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation for those who came before us.
If and when Burns and Novik stop providing such important educational content, who will fill the void? Or will they have produced so thorough and deeply detailed a collective documentation of American history that no further work will be necessary? They have created a library unlike any other, and The Vietnam War is only the latest invaluable volume.
Previously in the Top 25 Programs of 2017
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