I don’t review TV series, but I’m not sure if this is just that. Yes it’s serialised. 10 episodes, but each is feature length and such is the scope, they feel cinematic, although perhaps in a straight to TV sort of way... see, it’s confusing. Much like The Vietnam War it turns out.
I feel that it might be different in the US, but in the UK we don’t get much education covering this war and so I really only had a general overview of the subject. This series from Ken Burns fills in the holes, opens the topic up in staggering detail and reveals so much that I had no idea about. Therefore, right off the bat in episode one, it does what every good documentary does, it educates. Politics, Ideology, Religion and of course Power. This war is a melting pot of poor choices, senseless loss and anarchy, depicted here with increasingly horrific archive footage, a vast variety of talking heads and a tense broodingly brilliant Reznor/Ross score.
Denton Crocker Jr. a young enthusiastic and idyllic young American is one of series of little threads that arc through the bigger picture. It’s an odd juxtaposition between this focus on an individual and the expanse of the rest of the conflict, but these stories help bring some real purchase to something that otherwise would seem incomprehensible.
It’s visceral and as the earlier episodes dealing with the the history, the details, the politics make way, we get into the late 60s and delve into psychology, the lasting damage. It’s graphic, bloody, fearlessly depicting the senseless violence and it’s hard to understand that what you’re seeing is real, not just TV, these are people blown to pieces for a war, a cause, they don’t really understand.
General Westmoreland, a key figure on the US military side, is the epitome of American arrogance. I’ve watched hours of this with a permanent frown or scowl on my face brought on by the mindless disregard for life. It builds up so much tension in my eyes, the release on the episode ending is disarming, like a weight removed, thankful it’s over. People like Westmoreland and a string of self regarding presidents are to blame for this. Nixon comes off especially badly, an antisemitic scumbag, concerned only with keeping his place in office.
Although it does feel slightly weighted toward the American taste for war and the kill count, the Vietnamese aggression is not glossed over by any means. The stories told by those there, on both sides, are brutally honest and the volume of archival footage is quite incredible. It could feel like a constant battering to the viewer and sometimes does as the war drags on, but the narration by Peter Coyote provides a backbone and keeps it anchored.
The personal stories keep this humanised, but they all share a familiar thread. They’re young, often uneducated beyond high school, working class, idealistic. Children ruined by the conflict. “War awakens a savage in people”, one Vietnamese vet. says, himself from a similar low post on his countries social scale.
There’s careful consideration to the telling of events, with talking heads or still photos accompanying voice recordings (a lot in the Nixon era). Countered with dramatic, real-time war footage cut to 60s rock classics, Stones, Zepplin that does feel wrong somehow, but works all the same, as we get Beatles and Dylan over the protest footage back home. Despite these elements, it never loses it documentary framework.
It’s sobering to watch. Many of the interviews from those who served are proud, yet question why they were there. Yet it’s interviews with people who didn’t serve that show an unnerving aggression, sunonamous with gung-ho, gun-toting Americans. It’s hard to watch and think ‘have you learnt nothing!?’
All in all, perhaps as to be expected, America as a country does not come off well. Murdering, electioneering, unfalthomly arrogant. A series of useless presidents, army officials infecting from the top down to the disillusioned soldiers.
An increasingly fractured society, liberal protesters vs conservative warmongers. In the 50 years following, has America changed at all?..... No. Not really.