In Country: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Bring Fresh Eyes to 'The Vietnam War' (2023)

In Country: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Bring Fresh Eyes to 'The Vietnam War' (1)

Vietnam looms large in the American psyche. It was a war with no news blackouts or selectively embedded journalists, and it was discussed at the dinner table in nearly every home. We sat rapt in our living rooms as the news broadcast the faces of weary young soldiers, Buddhist monks aflame, and dead and wounded bodies littering rice paddies and roads. It was, for many of us, among our first memories of television, a jarring juxtaposition to The Brady Bunch and Batman.

The war remains so polarizing and lingers so heavily, that 40 years after its end, it continues to agitate. In 2016, Senator John McCain's horrific POW experience was denigrated by current President Donald J. Trump, a man who took advantage of five draft deferments to avoid military service. And, during John Kerry's 2004 bid for the presidency, his opponents created a poisonous counter-narrative to his lauded military career (which included receiving a Purple Heart) that essentially derailed his campaign.

Hollywood has taken many shots at mining meaning from the war as well. But despite their cinematic brilliance, films like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket are hardly snapshots of the actual event. Even the excellent fiction and nonfiction books that cover countless aspects of the conflict fail to give us a complete picture.

(Video) The Vietnam War with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

But now, in their epic ten-part series, The Vietnam War, which premieres on PBS September 17, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have applied their formidable skills as historians and documentary filmmakers to capture its breadth and depth.

Written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, The Vietnam War is an illuminating and often wrenching emotional journey into the heart and soul of two countries. At the end of each of the prophetically titled episodes, viewers already at the edge of their seats may have to remind themselves to breathe.

Begun in 2006, shortly after the duo finished their World War II series The War, this ten-year endeavor is rich in multiple narratives, never-before-seen-or-heard historical content sourced from global archives, and seamlessly integrated sound and music, that altogether effects a wholly immersive viewing experience.

Burns and Novick don’t work with a template, and when they began wrestling with the subject matter, they had no idea where it would take them. "I think if we had a clue, it would've turned out differently than what we expected,"Novick admits. "If we had gone into the film with a plan, like, 'Here are the points we're going to make,'we wouldn't have made the film that we made. We start with an idea but it's really an open process."

(Video) The Vietnam War: A Discussion with Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Roger Harris

Burns explains that the confluence of visuals, including stills and film footage, and over 150 songs, was as complicated as any feature film. "The idea was to make it feel as if you're there,"he says. "We invited representatives of all of the three major archives, ABC, NBC and CBS, and they were stunned to see the war footage they thought they knew coming alive and intermingling with their competitors'footage into something that was seamless—but more important than that, experiential."

The production team continued to find ways to bring the material to life, and at one juncture, editors and sound editors went into the woods near Burns'New Hampshire home and shot AK-47s and M16s to build the audio for an overlay that would create greater intimacy during battle scenes.

They continued to fine-tune the episodes nearly up until broadcast. "We never stop researching, which I think is one of our tricks, and we never stop writing, which is also one of our tricks,"Burns explains. "We never really stop shooting either."He recalls being in the middle of showing a fine cut to a large group of people in New Hampshire when some new information came up. "We were able to pull Pham Luc [a former North Vietnamese foot-soldier who was in the US for this screening] aside and we did another interview right there in the barn. This happens all the time, and it's being corrigible and open to the end."

The multiple threads that create a clear chronology of the war were woven together during a meticulous three-year editing process. The series covers the birth of the conflict by exploring the Vietnamese quest for independence from France, the complex jockeying for power in the North and South, and the booms and cracks of their civil war. It explains the US'early involvement as a prudent response to Cold War realities, but then illustrates how American hubris and political chicanery prolonged the terror in Southeast Asia and instigated a societal rupture at home.

(Video) The Vietnam war full (Part 01/12)

The scope of information here is unprecedented even for the work of Burns and Novick. Determined to look at the era with "fresh eyes,"they deliberately eschewed sitting down with well-known figures like Kerry and McCain, which allows viewers to push any pre-conceived notions aside. Instead, they make us privy to the startling confidences of presidents, and go deep in the White House and the Pentagon, but it's their reliable narrators, mostly ordinary people, who are the most profound.

The filmmakers interviewed veterans of the US military, anti-war activists, a deserter, war correspondents, former diplomats and a Gold Star mother, and they include the tape-recorded correspondence of a young man who wouldn't survive, but whose remarkable impressions of the war zig-zag from banal to horrifying. What's most striking, though, are the candid, first-person accounts of South Vietnamese veterans and civilians who were caught in the crossfire, as well as former Vietcong guerillas and North Vietnamese foot-soldiers and military leaders. Their perspective is critical, and allows for a 360-degree view of the conflict.

Burns wryly observes that ten years on a single film can buy a lot of research. "I think the human resources of this film are unique because of patience,"he notes. "We enjoyed unusual access to Vietnam, the country and its archives, but most importantly its people. We approached it the same way we approached the research for the Americans. Read a story, read a novel. You read history and they'll talk about somebody, and you'll try to find that person."

According to Novick, who conducted interviews in Vietnam with the assistance of the film's Vietnamese producer and translator, Ho Dang Hoa, no one was averse to talking, but they wondered who'd watch. "They wanted to know if American people were really interested in what they went through,"says Novick. "After we'd talk they'd say, 'We really want to tell you because we don't talk about the war in this way here, and our children and grandchildren don’t know much about it.'"

(Video) THE VIETNAM WAR | Consulting with Ken Burns & Lynn Novick | PBS

The Vietnamese stories are revelatory, and the arc of their personal experiences are often in concert with that of the Americans. "We're all human beings, right?"Burns notes. "I think too often, our own exceptionalism gets in our way, and we forget to extend to the other humanity."

Hearing individuals from all sides of the conflict describe the same commitments to a just cause— albeit from different perspectives—only to become disillusioned; decry a draft that sent young men of little means into battle while the children of the wealthy remained impervious; express anger and confusion at government obfuscation; or describe how they remain haunted by the deaths of friends and family members, resonates long after the series ends.

In no small way, The Vietnam War couldn't come at a better time. The fallout of this catastrophic failure, built by five US presidents of both political parties, was not a reckoning, but an amplified legacy of polarization and an aversion to any public discussion beyond sound bites and tropes.

Burns suggests we more closely observe the human overlay of events. "We get distracted by a couple things,"he observes. "One is, people like to say, 'History repeats itself.'And that's almost like a stiff-arming of history. You don't really have to know it. 'We're condemned to repeat what we don't remember'is a wonderful phrase too, but that's not true either. Human nature remains the same. And human nature superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of events, where we perceive patterns and themes and motifs and echoes."

(Video) Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Describe Vietnamese Reaction to 'The Vietnam War'

If we can come to terms with Vietnam and what it has left behind, we may be able to better negotiate the pulled-from-the-headlines parallels, inexplicable politics and upheaval we're experiencing now. And, as our foundation continues to shift, that recognition may allow us to have more clarity going forward.

Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who covers the collision of culture, technology and business. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, HR Magazine and other venues.


Who narrates Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary? ›

Peter Coyote

Did Netflix remove the Vietnam War documentary? ›

You want to know if you can stream Ken Burns' Vietnam series on Netflix. The answer is no.

Where can I watch Ken Burns documentary? ›

By streaming them through the PBS Video app (on your smart TV, smartphone, or the web), which has a Ken Burns Collection playlist available with Passport - found here. By renting them on iTunes. And if you have a university or public library card, you can find them through Kanopy – found here.

What started the Vietnam War? ›

Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, also known as the U.S.S. Maddox incident, marked the formal entry of the United States into the Vietnam War. “In the summer of 1964 the Johnson administration was laying secret plans for an expansion of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

What movie most accurately depicts the Vietnam War? ›

Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone's “Platoon” delivered Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and its cemented status as an authoritative Vietnam War film makes it No. 1 on our list.

What should I watch before going to Vietnam? ›

Best Vietnam Films
  • The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) — At the top of my list of the best Vietnam films is The Scent of Green Papaya. ...
  • The Quiet American (1958) — Read the The Quiet American book before watching the films. ...
  • The Quiet American (2002) — The Quiet American (2002) film stars Michael Caine.
Mar 1, 2021

How can I watch Ken Burns online for free? ›

You can stream PBS programming free on the PBS Video App and at

Why did Netflix remove the Vietnam War? ›

Since 2020 Netflix has removed three series from its site in Vietnam after complaints from the local authorities.

Did people watch the Vietnam War? ›

By 1965, the US found itself in a direct combat role fighting in Vietnam lasting until 1973. Throughout the Vietnam War, television cameras captured the scenes of war and for the American public to see like they never had before. As the 1960's progressed, more Americans spent more hours watching TV.

Is Ken Burns free on Amazon Prime? ›

The public broadcaster's PBS Documentaries channel will launch on Prime Video on August 4 and will cost $3.99 per month. Burns' documentaries will also be made available on PBS Passport, a member benefit of subscribing to one's local PBS station for $5 per month.

What time is Ken Burns documentary on PBS? ›

The U.S. and the Holocaust premieres on PBS stations starting Sunday, September 18 at 8pm ET.

Are there any Ken Burns movies on Netflix? ›

Here are the Ken Burns you can stream now: Ken Burns: The Civil War. Ken Burns: Prohibition. Ken Burns: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

What were the 3 main causes of the Vietnam War? ›

In general, historians have identified several different causes of the Vietnam War, including: the spread of communism during the Cold War, American containment, and European imperialism in Vietnam.

Which president started the Vietnam War? ›

The major initiative in the Lyndon Johnson presidency was the Vietnam War. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there.

Which photo stopped Vietnam War? ›

It was June 8, 1972 when Nick Ut took the now famous "Napalm Girl" photo. Many credit it with truly changing the world by giving innocent victims a face, and prompting an end to the Vietnam War.

Who was the biggest hero of the Vietnam War? ›

Sergeant First Class Jorge A. Otero Barreto (born 7 April 1937), a.k.a. "the Puerto Rican Rambo" and "Sergeant Rock", is a former United States Army soldier. He earned 38 military decorations during his career, and has been called the most decorated U.S. soldier of the Vietnam War.

Who was the most badass soldier in Vietnam? ›

Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez of the 1st Special Forces was credited with single-handedly saving the lives of eight men during six hours of non-stop battle.

What unit saw the most action in Vietnam? ›

The 199th Infantry Brigade is most notable for its participation in combat operations during the Vietnam War.

Should I wear jeans in Vietnam? ›

For men, casual jeans and shirts are the normal dress code, but they are advised not to take off their shirts in public places if it gets too hot. Especially in cities like Ho Chi Minh can be very hot in summer. You should be properly covered up and wear appropriate clothes. This is applicable to both women and men.

What can you not take to Vietnam? ›

Weapons and Explosives: We know that some countries allow citizens to own some kinds of weapons. However in Vietnam, using or bringing weapons (such as pistols, shotguns, and firearms) or explosives is totally prohibited. If you are caught with these items, you will definitely in trouble!

Is Vietnam friendly to American tourists? ›

Vietnam is a wonderful country in South East Asia. It's generally known to be one of the most visited by travelers and backpackers when you think about this part of the country. Compared to other continents, Asia is easy to travel to and people are very friendly. Vietnam makes no exception.

Is the PBS app free? ›

mobile. On iOS & Android, enjoy the latest from PBS from your mobile phone or tablet. You can now easily stream PBS programs by simply downloading the free PBS App.

How can I watch all documentaries for free? ›

Watch Free Documentaries Online

Watch documentaries online at where you'll find an amazing collection of documentaries and television programs including FRONTLINE, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and POV.

Where can I watch documentaries for free? ›

The 10 Best Sites To Watch Documentaries For Free
  • SnagFilms. Launched in 2008, SnagFilms offers more than 10,000 free documentaries, each categorized and graded by users.
  • Crackle. ...
  • The Documentary Network. ...
  • PBS. ...
  • Vimeo. ...
  • True/False Film Fest. ...
  • VICE. ...
  • Viewster.
Jan 16, 2015

Why the US lost in the Vietnam War? ›

Basically because the Vietnamese wanted to win more than the Americans did. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, the Americans were an invading force, and the Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil. Second, the Americans were not willing to make an all-out commitment to win.

Did Russia back Vietnam in the Vietnam War? ›

As the original communist state, the Soviet Union aided North Vietnam, with increasing support in the late 1960s. While the U.S.S.R. supplied some troops, their biggest contribution was in weaponry.

What movie did Netflix remove? ›

Over 60 Netflix Original movies and shows are no longer available on the service.
Marvel Defenders Series – Removed in March 2022 including:
  • Daredevil (Seasons 1-3)
  • Jessica Jones (Seasons 1-3)
  • Luke Cage (Seasons 1-2)
  • Iron Fist (Seasons 1-2)
  • The Defenders (Limited Series)
  • The Punisher (Seasons 1-2)
Jan 5, 2023

How can you tell if someone was in the Vietnam War? ›

Service Records

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis maintains Vietnam War Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF). Access to Non-Archival Military Service Records is limited. Non-Archival records are those of service members who separated from the military less than 62 years ago.

Did US soldiers commit war crimes in Vietnam? ›

During the war, 95 U.S. Army personnel and 27 U.S. Marine Corps personnel were convicted by court-martial of the murder or manslaughter of Vietnamese. U.S. forces also established numerous free-fire zones as a tactic to prevent Viet Cong fighters from sheltering in South Vietnamese villages.

How old would someone be if they were in the Vietnam War? ›

Fact: Assuming KIAs accurately represented age groups serving in Vietnam, the average age of an infantryman (MOS 11B) serving in Vietnam to be 19 years old is a myth, it is actually 22. None of the enlisted grades have an average age of less than 20. The average man who fought in World War II was 26 years of age.

Who is the narrator of the Vietnam War? ›

Who narrates Jackie Robinson Ken Burns? ›

Keith David

Who is the voice of Hemingway in Ken Burns documentary? ›

The film is narrated by long-time collaborator Peter Coyote. Hemingway's words are brought vividly to life by Jeff Daniels. Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, and Mary-Louise Parker read the voices of Hemingway's four wives. Original music is provided by Johnny Gandelsman and David Cieri.

Who is the hero of Vietnam? ›

Ho Chi Minh led a long and ultimately successful campaign to make Vietnam independent. He was president of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, and he was one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century. His seminal role is reflected in the fact that Vietnam's largest city is named for him.

Who is the voice of Benjamin Franklin in Ken Burns new documentary? ›

Why watch Ken Burns' riveting, four-hour Benjamin Franklin (PBS, April 4-5, 8 p.m. ET), narrated by Peter Coyote, with performances and dramatic readings by Mandy Patinkin and Paul Giamatti?

Who spoke at Jackie Robinson's funeral? ›

At Robinson's funeral, Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. The pallbearers were basketball legend Bill Russell, Doby, who integrated the American League, and Dodger teammates Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca.

Who is the famous documentary narrator? ›

Critics and viewers widely consider David Attenborough one of the best documentary narrators of all time. His voice is calm and authoritative, and he has a rare ability to make even the most complex scientific concepts accessible to a general audience.

What is the review of Ken Burns Hemingway documentary? ›

Hemingway is as direct and authoritative, concise yet epic, as you'd expect of Burns and his regular co-director Lynn Novick. July 2, 2021 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review… Hemingway succeeds not only because it gives us a picture of the man, the complete man, but also because it never forgets the writing.

Did Orson Welles know Hemingway? ›

In a 1974 interview with Michael Parkinson, Orson Welles sat in a big leather chair, smoking a big ol' cigar, and discussed his “very close friend” Ernest Hemingway. “We had a very strange relationship,” he explained. “I never belonged to his clan, because I made fun of him. And nobody ever made fun of Hemingway.

What channel is Ken Burns Hemingway on? ›

Watch Hemingway | A Documentary about Ernest Hemingway by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick | PBS.


1. THE VIETNAM WAR | PBS Previews: Sights & Sounds | PBS
2. The Vietnam War: An Evening with Ken Burns
(Rocky Mountain PBS)
3. [WATCH] US Film makers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick producing the untold stories of the Vietnam war
(Eyewitness News)
4. Academic Experts Respond to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Vietnam War Documentary
(KODX Seattle)
5. The War A Ken Burns Film,
(Александр Абрамов)
6. Ken Burns & Lynn Novick discuss The Vietnam War documentary
(PBS SoCal)
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