Movie of the Month: The Vietnam War

Ken Burns has become known as America’s historian, and his 18-hour documentary, over ten years in the making, might be the definitive explication of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Or not. Certainly, like the war itself, the film is controversial.

David Kamp of Vanity Fair calls it “monumental” and “scrupulously evenhanded.” Todd VanDerWerff of Vox calls it “a staggering achievement,” while others accuse Burns of relying too heavily on the corporate sponsorship of Bank of America and accordingly whitewashing the imperialism of the United States, and some claim that the film is flawed because the filmmakers, like many Americans, lack a basic understanding of Vietnamese history and politics.

I couldn’t possibly know more about the Vietnam war than Ken Burns (who, along with his directing partner Lynn Novick, interviewed hundreds of people–American and Vietnamese government officials, soldiers, and civilians) but I did notice some omissions.

For example, Burns claims that the war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings” (a questionable assertion in itself) but he never really explores the reasons why it continued for so long beyond the face-saving, election-year machinations of each successive president. There’s not much attention given to the corporations who profited from the manufacture and sales of all those weapons and tanks and helicopters, not to mention napalm and Agent Orange. Burns shows us students occupying administrative buildings on campus to demand Black Studies classes, but wouldn’t it be more relevant to talk about the occupying students who demanded that the school divest its holdings in Dow Chemical?

Still, Burns manages, at times, to powerfully evoke the divisiveness and the heartbreak that haunt us to this day. At times the movie seems as endless and exhausting as the war itself, and that is to its credit. Some critics have accused Burns of being repetitive, but I can forgive that, because some things bear repeating, such as that kill ratios are an unconscionable objective and a horrible standard for judging the success of a military operation. You can’t make that point too many times.

Difficult as it is to watch, The Vietnam War is worth seeing. Is it the only Vietnam film you’ll ever need? No, but don’t worry. The Library has you covered.

To get on the waiting list for The Vietnam War, click here.

For supplemental movies to watch while you’re waiting, click here.


posted: , by Patti DeLois
tags: Library Collections | Adults | Teens | Seniors | Art & Culture
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