“We try super-hard not to put our thumbs on the scale to promote an agenda, political or otherwise,” Ken Burns said of his 10-part documentary series The Vietnam War, which he made with producing partner Lynn Novick, featuring testimony from about 80 witnesses including Americans who fought in the war, those who opposed it, as well as North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
Because “human nature never changes” Burns argued the project helps us understand this moment in our country’s history, describing it as a “stew of anger and recrimination.”
“This story is rarely told from more than one perspective,” Burned told TV critics at TCA. “We tend to talk only about ourselves.” This documentary is a “triangulation” of the American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese perspective on the war. “Other voices, other perspectives, lend to the idea [that] there isn’t a single truth in war,” Burns said. “There are many truths that can coexist and hearing them might help take the fuel rods out of the division that was born in Vietnam.” That division, he said, “exists to this moment.”
The project differs from his earlier documentaries on the Civil War and World War II in that there was no “sentimentality” he had to strip away to get to the “through-line to the tragedy…to the horror of war.”
Just a couple of hours after PBS CEO Paula Kerger warned of the precariousness of public broadcast funding in Washington, Burns argued passionately for its continued funding. He and Novick spent 10 years “wrestling this story to the ground” which would not have been possible at any commercial television operation. “There is no other place where this could have been made, where we could have spent 10 years. There is not any other business model to do this except public broadcasting.” At another network, he imagined suits telling him it had come in too long, too violent, and not sexy enough.
Burns also came to TCA in January to talk about the project and got asked “Are you prepared for Donald Trump tweets saying this is fake news?” given how at odds it is with the Trump administration’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Then, as now, Burns argued the doc is an opportunity for viewers to have courageous conversations about what happened and insisted there is not “one truth” about the highly unpopular war.
The Vietnam War premieres Sundays through Thursdays at 8 PM ET, September 17-21 and 24-28.