Ken Burns discusses his newest epic, The Vietnam War, the importance of PBS and why he wants to tackle LBJ next.
An American soldier spends time with his siblings before leaving for Vietnam on “Episode Seven: The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968-May 1969)” from The Vietnam War.
Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War (klru.org/vietnam) is the latest epic documentary from lauded filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The 10-episode, 18-hour series, which premieres on PBS Sept. 17, examines the disastrous war from all sides and angles, turning our assumptions and perceptions of the period inside-out.
No one excavates and examines a subject like Burns and Novick, whose previous works such as The Civil War and Jazz have helped viewers better understand our history and, thus, our present. Recently, KLRU-TV, Austin PBS and the LBJ Presidential Library—an indispensable resource for the filmmakers—invited Burns to preview select clips in front of a capacity crowd that included many veterans. We later talked with Burns, who shared insight into what will surely be a provocative national conversation starter this fall.
AT THE SCREENING, YOU SAID WORKING ON THE SERIES UPENDED EVERYTHING YOU KNEW ABOUT VIETNAM AND THAT EVERY DAY WORKING ON THIS WAS A “HUMILIATING REMINDER” ABOUT WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW. WHAT SHOULD VIEWERS EXPECT? I think the viewers are going to relive our experience, perhaps not with the same degree of humiliation. We spent a decade trying to not only shed our own preconceptions, but to get the facts right.
HOW RELEVANT IS THE VIETNAM WAR TO WHAT THE COUNTRY IS DEALING WITH TODAY POLITICALLY? Imagine I told you I had been working on a film in which mass demonstrations take place across the country, that it’s about a White House in disarray and obsessed with leaks, a big document drop of classified material that shatters everything, one political campaign reaching out to a foreign power at the time of a national election and asymmetrical warfare that leaves the U.S. military, the finest in the world, unsure and unclear about how to fight it. You would say, ‘You’ve abandoned history and are talking about right now!’ It’s eerie, but that’s true of many films I’ve worked on.
THIS YEAR MARKS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF LBJ SIGNING THE PUBLIC BROADCASTING ACT. HOW VITAL IS PBS TO YOUR WORK? There’s only one place in our media spectrum where I could have made this film, and that is public broadcasting. No one would have permitted the time and amount of money it took to produce this. The great foresight of President Johnson to sign the act was an extension of what government does really well. It’s possible to create an entity that has one foot tentatively in the marketplace, but one foot proudly out and thus free to engage topics of national interest.
WHAT DID PREVIEWING THE DOC IN AUSTIN MEAN TO YOU? That was a really special screening for all of us involved, to have President Johnson’s two daughters in the front row and to be doing it at the Johnson Library. With Johnson and the war, the level of drama reaches Shakespearean proportions. It’s already driven me toward doing a series on the history of his presidency. So much of what he’s doing domestically is off stage in our Vietnam film, and you begin to realize that the din of the fighting drowns out his ability to accomplish his ambitious domestic agenda. I’d like to turn that inside-out and for us to understand his extraordinary legacy. The Vietnam War will air from 7-9pm on KLRU Sept. 17-21, 24-28. KLRU will also tell local stories and host screenings.