National Press Club

Ken Burns, Lynn Novick hope their PBS documentary on Vietnam will shift national discourse, they tell Headliners Event

June 14, 2017 | By Kristin Szremski |

Filmmaker Ken Burns at June 14 National Press Club Headliners Event, at which he appeared with Lynn Novick to discuss their upcoming PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War.

Filmmaker Ken Burns at June 14 National Press Club Headliners Event, at which he appeared with Lynn Novick to discuss their upcoming PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick want to fundamentally change the national conversation about the Vietnam War, and they’re hoping their new 18-hour documentary on the subject will be the impetus for such a paradigm shift.

The two filmmakers made that clear Wednesday morning at a National Press Club Headliners Event at which they joined retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, who played an integral advisory role in the documentary, producer Sarah Bostein, and National Press Club President Jeff Ballou.

The documentary series, which premieres Sept. 17 on PBS and will feature 10 episodes, tackles the controversial historical conflict not only from the American perspective but also from the viewpoints of the North and South Vietnamese.

The stories of 80 combatants, anti-war protesters and Vietnamese civilians will weave together a deeper narrative that considers everyone who was involved on all sides, which, to date, has not been considered, Burns and Novick said.

The purpose is to go back to the beginning and retell the story with a fuller context, they said.

“It’s unfinished business in our history that we don’t know about,” Novick said. “The full context eludes all of us. … It’s a national trauma, something that’s very difficult to understand.”

Burns characterized the Vietnam War as the “single most important event in the second half of the 20th century,” but, which, nevertheless, has gone unaddressed. He expressed his hope that this film will create the space that will “permit people to have the kind of conversation about a war we have been consciously ignoring."

The series, which took 10 years to complete, features digitally restored archival footage from across the globe, including from Vietnam, photographs and secret recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, according to the PBS website. It also features more than 100 musical recordings from the greatest artists of the era.

But while the soundtracks will be familiar, the subjects of the documentary will not be, said Burns and Novick. They purposely stayed away, they said, from well-known figures already associated with the war to focus instead on those whose stories have not been told over the past decades.

Helping to bring depth to the series, which Gen. McPeak described as a “magnificent piece of art,” is the fact that team members who worked on the project ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s. Each brought a unique perspective that depended upon whether they’d lived through the war or only read about it in textbooks. But they all ended up on a level playing field as what they uncovered in their research consistently challenged what they thought they knew. They had to relearn everything, Novick said.

Even McPeak, who served in the war said he was surprised with by new findings about the conflict. He recounted a secret mission to Laos, where he was tasked with stopping North Vietnamese supply trucks from making it down the Ho Chi Min Trail. It wasn’t until he saw some archival footage of that operation did he realize that “half of those truck drivers were women,” he told the audience. “I’m not happy about the fact that probably we actually killed a lot of women.”

The point of the documentary series is to challenge commonly held notions about the war and to supersede any conversation about winners and losers, said Burns and Novick. Instead, they said, they and their team hope to convey the real human nature of war from all sides.

Burns, who is a member of the National Press Club, said he believes the seeds for the rank divisiveness in our country today were planted during the Vietnam era. He wants his project to compel people to confront that legacy that still haunts us today.

“When we understand it, then we also understand our present moment,” he said.