Ken Burns is arguably America’s best-known historian, or at least its most notable historical documentary filmmaker. His focus is the past, in often epic documentaries such as “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “The War,” about World War II.
And it’s the past, Burns says, that is more flexible and unstable than the present or even the future.
“My late father-in-law was a very brilliant man,” Burns says during a Dallas visit along with Lynn Novick, his frequent co-director. “He once told me, ‘We think of the past as fixed and the future as completely open. It’s actually the opposite.’ The future is pretty well-determined. We know what we’re going to do for the rest of the day, and tomorrow and whatever, like that. But the past is utterly malleable. Not just as new information arises that tells us, ‘Yes, the DNA confirms that Thomas Jefferson[’s] DNA is part of the descendants of Sally Hemming,’ but as we ourselves change and ask different questions of the same sets of events.”
During the 10 years that Burns and Novick were working on their latest project, “The Vietnam War,” Burns found himself asking a lot of questions about the same sets of events — and about himself. It’s a 10-part, 18-hour documentary about the divisive war, with the trademark Burns-Novick touches: extensive interviews, tons of archival footage, home movies, audio recordings, period music.
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Some of Burns’ previous projects, such as “Baseball” and “Jazz,” have included events that have taken place in his lifetime. But this is one of the few where practically all the events took place in his lifetime. He turned 15 in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, and was eligible for the draft at age 18 in the spring of 1972 but was not called up. Now he’s 64 — he’s had a birthday since this interview takes place — and working on the film has led him to questions about what he believed in the past and left him embarrassed — his word — by some of the things he thinks he should’ve been more aware of.
“But even your 8-year-old and your 15-year-old has no certainty,” Burns says. “So that all the comments that we get now [in the film] are wistful and rueful and anguished and emotional, which means that they don’t feel even at this moment that they’re on solid footing. ... In ’68, where I’m 15, [I say], ‘Great, more of them than us [were killed].’ I’m against the war — I think — but I don’t want Americans to die, and it’s better that it’s more of them, and maybe they’ll stop and it’ll be over.”
But it wouldn’t be over till 1975, and although Burns says he had matured by then, more than 40 years later and 10 years after starting the project, he’s still wrestling with how he feels about it. He believes the war was a failure, and that’s clear in the documentary from the beginning, but he and Novick and their crew strove to honor those who fought — on both sides — and those who didn’t, “and all the shades in between” from Gold Star families to POWs to Viet Cong guerrillas who had been fighting since they were children. More than 80 people were interviewed for the film, including veterans, former protesters and reporters.
“I think the testimony of the people you meet in the film, they’re wrestling with it every minute,” Novick says. “Sometimes they’re telling you what they thought when they were 8 or 10 or 15 or in Vietnam, and they’re wrestling with how to makes sense of ‘how the thing happened, that happened to me, and what do I think about it now and what will my children think?’ They’re telling their story in different ways from different places in their lives.”
Along with grappling with these feelings, Burns and Novick dealt with the questions of how the war started and when the U.S. got involved.
“People don’t know, exactly, when do you count,” Burns says. “Is it boots on the ground, which would be March 1965? It it the committing of advisers — but then, is it the [President] Kennedy advisers? ... For the purposes of this film, we decided that it begins when the OSS parachutes into northern China, northern Vietnam, and arms the Viet Minh led by this scraggly guy named Ho Chi Minh and establishes a relationship with him. He, just a few months later, will declare Vietnamese independence on the the same day that the Japanese are formally surrendering on the USS Missouri out on Tokyo Bay. ... The idea that this is going to be a war happens within a few weeks.”
Months later, in September 1945, Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, an Army officer with the Office of Strategic Services, became the first American solider killed in Vietnam. But there are other potential starting points, and Burns and Novick tried to put everything in context.
“It didn’t feel like we’d be serving our audience or ourselves very well if we started there,” Novick says. “We had to go back and say, ‘What is this place Vietnam?’ And [explore] how the French got involved and the colonial experience. ... These are all done very quickly, but at least you get some context.”
The directors also sought multiple Vietnamese points of view, from North Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and journalists, to former Viet Cong guerrillas to South Vietnamese diplomats, marines, civilians and journalists. Which led to other perspectives on when things started.
“None of them agree,” Burns says. “There’s no monolithic, one ‘Them,’ just as there is no monolithic, one ‘Us.’”
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The directors begin bouncing off each other.
Novick: “So when you ask them, ‘When did it start?’ that’s a great question —”
Burns: “They’ll say, ‘1858, when the French came, the foreigners came.’ Some others will say, ‘Actually, we’ve been fighting the Chinese for centuries.’ ”
Novick: “It’s a deep question, actually. It’s a very deep question. And like everything else about this, there are no easy answers.”
Music and memories
Music plays a big part in “The Vietnam War,” with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, making big contributions from the soundtrack. But it’s the period music — i.e., ’60s and ’70s rock — that a lot of people will notice. In Burns’ “Jazz,” writer-historian James Maher said “Song is the wind chime of memory,” and Burns echoes that statement.
“I would say [to crew members], ‘No, no, it’s gotta be this song,” Burns says. “Watch what it does — it plunges our viewers right back to the moment. This Otis Redding thing or this Marvin Gaye or this Beatles song or this Rolling Stones song or Procol Harum or Buffalo Springfield. It just pulls you to a time, and it happened to be an incredibly fertile time for music in the United States.”
There are also country songs and jazz pieces — 120 contributions in all. The producers had to acquire song rights, but fees were relatively small, Burns says, because the artists wanted their music to be part of the film.
Burns is already at work on his next project, a 16 1/2 -hour, eight-episode history of country music set to air in 2019. Fort Worth gets mentions, thanks to Bob Wills, the Light Crust Doughboys, Willie Nelson and other country stars with a history in the city.
Burns found working on the music project cathartic, especially while simultaneously working on “The Vietnam War.”
“I can’t tell you what it was like to spend a few weeks in the editing room with ‘Vietnam’ and be waist-deep in the big muddy and give sets of instructions — and then be able to go off and shoot interviews with Dolly Parton and meet Marty Stuart and Vince Gill and Connie Smith and 96 other people,” Burns says.
Burns says the country-music film, another deep dive into history, is very emotional. “When you see human beings over the decades in a kind of family — sometimes a family literally, because you can go from A.P. and Maybelle Carter through to John Cash, who are related.”
Burns begins talking about an episode titled “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin,” telling an anecdote about how Garth Brooks, after playing four sold-out shows at Texas Stadium, then went to a Nashville fan fair and spent 23 hours signing autographs. “Mick Jagger has never done that,” Burns says. “Renee Fleming has never done that, or Bob Dylan. But country-music people do that: ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’. There’s something intimate and just so elemental, I found myself sobbing as many times as I did the Vietnam film.
“It tries to make sense of the human condition,” Burns concludes, “which is the same film we keep making over and over again.”