Last night I accompanied my friend Scottie Kersta-Wilson–writer and artist-extraordinaire–to hear Ken Burns talk about his new series The Vietnam War, which will air on September 17 on your local PBS station.*
Burns is an appealing speaker. It was fascinating to hear how his team works to tell a story. The depth of the research. The care with language–long debates over whether to describe the American experience in Vietnam as a failure or a defeat, for instance. The fact that research continues alongside writing and filming. It was equally fascinating to hear how he organized this particular story around the concept that there isn’t just one truth about the Vietnam war. (I loved the fact that he described the events surrounding the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 as an important battle in the war.) He and his crew talked to soldiers and civilians from both sides of the war. Perhaps more importantly, the people they interviewed were not the big names of the war. This is a man-in-the-street look at the war, set within a rigorously researched framework
The heart of the evening was a set of nine clips from the coming series–a little less than a hour of what will be eighteen hours of television. In the course of fifty-some minutes, I laughed** and cried. I was horrified.*** I felt ill and angry and sad and, occasionally, proud. I covered my eyes more than once. I learned stuff.
I’m not sure I’ll make it through all eighteen hours of The Vietnam War. It is a beautiful piece of cinematography and intelligent story telling, but the depiction of death and violence is graphic and gruesome. Despite the fact that I write about war more than I write about anything else,**** I am kind of a wimp about images of dead and broken people. But what I saw on the screen last night makes me determined to try.
I’ll be interested to know what you think.
(A quick reminder to those of you who get this by email: If you want to watch the trailer, you need to go to the browser. Just click the header.)
* Or at least that’s true if you’re in the United States–I know not all of you are. At some point the episodes will also be available online.
**Lyndon Johnson saying “the press lies like a bunch of drunken sailors.”
***Lyndon Johnson saying “the press lies like a bunch of drunken sailors.”
****Not something I could ever have predicted.