Co-director Lynn Novick on making “The Vietnam War”

"The Vietnam War," a 10-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, begins airing on PBS on Sunday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Watch…

Episode One of “The Vietnam War” airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS. Streaming options and more info at

Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick decided to make a film about the Vietnam War a decade ago. But they felt they had to wait to tackle this most divisive and controversial piece of history.

“We’ve been talking about Vietnam for a long time, but always thought it was too recent, believe it or not,” Novick said in an interview this summer during a visit to the Aspen Institute. “Even 10 years ago, it felt too recent to have enough perspective and distance.”

She believes that the country is finally prepared to heal from and reckon with the war. She hopes that the 10-part “The Vietnam War,” co-directed by Burns and Novick and opening Sunday night on PBS stations nationwide, will help the nation finally come to terms with the tragic conflict. Every Ken Burns film release is a major cultural event, but this one, the filmmakers hope, might also be a turning point for America’s grappling with the traumatic legacy of Vietnam.

“It’s a festering wound that we’ve avoided dealing with,” Novick said. “And we avoid talking about it, except for shouting in the most reductive way. So in order to move forward as a country we have to understand what happened, why it’s so painful and why we can’t talk about it. The project of making a film about a subject as complex and tragic as this was certainly daunting and overwhelming, but we felt like we could shed some light.”

They set out to make an immersive film that is at once encyclopedic and personal, relying on troves of archival footage and declassified documents but also the personal recollections of veterans – American and Vietnamese – along with anti-war protestors, reporters, government officials and most anyone touched by the conflict at home and abroad.

“We were interested in seeing these big epic events and how they affected ordinary people,” Novick said. “There is this sense of shared humanity and, in this epic tragedy, there is a human dimension to it. That’s what we tried to get at. Many people have tackled it from different perspectives, but nobody has done it on this scale, with this many voices, this many points of view.”

The first episode opens in 1858, covering the colonial history of Vietnam and the rise of Ho Chi Minh. It ends with the opening of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1982. Running 18 hours, “The Vietnam War” is the longest film of Burns’ career.

In its grand sweep, it brings the viewer into The White House, the Pentagon, the Politburo and the presidential palace in Saigon, to fights on the battlefields and on college campuses, in newsrooms and living rooms. Its soundtrack makes use of the iconic rock music of the era, along with an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. The film aims to account for perspectives on all sides of this most controversial war.

“It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation,” narrator Peter Coyote says early on. “And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American Presidents, belonging to both political parties.”

Novick — who has been working with Burns since 1999 and co-directed with him “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “The War,” “Prohibition” and the 2010 update to “Baseball” — spent much of the summer traveling with Burns and the film to show selections to diverse audiences, including one at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Many viewers have told the filmmakers that they were changed by the visceral experience of seeing “The Vietnam War.”

“There’s something about the power of the way the story unfolds,” said Novick. “It’s hard to walk away from that with all of your prejudices and preconceptions and hard-held beliefs in tact.”

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