“The Vietnam War,” the latest masterpiece by Ken Burns and his longtime co-director Lynn Novick, checks the obvious boxes: The My Lai Massacre. The 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Tet Offensive. The Kent State shootings.
What’s missing are the talking heads who typically dominate history films. Familiar faces such as veterans-turned-politicians Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry were consulted but not interviewed on camera. Instead, Burns’ team focused on the common men and women on both sides of the conflict.
It’s a brilliant decision, one that personalizes a daunting chapter in American history and helps the directors sidestep political land mines.
Two veterans stick out: Vincent Okamoto, the most highly decorated Japanese-American soldier to survive the war, whose tale of how finagling a bowl of rice from a local family spiraled into a haunting tragedy; and John Musgrave, a Marine combat veteran from Kansas, whose somber struggles reflect the complicated mood of the turbulent 1960s.
“Racism 101 turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your war,” he says in one of his many chilling testimonials.
Minnesota-raised writer Tim O’Brien also figures prominently. The final episode is framed by O’Brien’s readings from his short-story collection about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried.”
The commentary is so powerful that I wish even more time could have been devoted to the chopper pilots, medics, protesters and bureaucrats, and less to the film’s dutiful recounting of events. The soundtrack — lots of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel — will also be all too predictable to anyone over 50.
But those old enough to remember the conflict need to keep in mind that “Vietnam” is as much for under-informed youth as it is for those still trying to reconcile with their past.
Whichever camp you’re in, Musgrave and company will break your heart.