Like the fatally flawed 2014 Rory Kennedy documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” with its “alternative facts” and manipulative omissions, this documentary series is slickly promoted by local PBS affiliates in the USA in a well-coordinated national PR campaign. I was at two previews in Seattle, in July with Burns and Novick in attendance at a ticketed event, and in August at a free outdoor showing run by the local PBS affiliate alone. The organizers on both occasions emphasized how proud they were to promote discussions about the war, but in fact they did not provide any opportunity for feedback, questions, or discussions at the events, nor showed any interest in engaging in any.

While the crowd gathered for the July showing, the local PBS affiliate, KCTS 9, projected on the screen a looping “historical timeline” for 1954-1974 that contained glaring errors:  e.g., in 1954, “Vietnam signs the Geneva Accords and divides into two countries,” and the RVN’s unconditional surrender was dated in 1974.

—> NB: I’d be interested to hear from others in the USA who attended previews whether that “historical timeline” was used at their events as well.

Before the preview, Burns and Novick talked to the audience and, in keeping with the series’ stated interest in “healing” and “coming together,” asked military veterans and those involved in the anti-war movement to stand and be recognized. (I guess there were some who had worn both hats.) After the preview of several short clips, the July “panel discussion” was a staged conversation between Burns, Novick, and Karl Marlantes, who is one of the featured protagonists of the series and who has local roots. The mood was celebratory and self-congratulating, with little anecdotes and pithy one-liners sprinkled in that evoked frequent, adoring applause from the audience. Novick could make a whopper of a statement that the war was between three “countries,” the USA, “North Viet Nam,” and “South Viet Nam,” without any opportunity to engage her. No Q&A was allowed so as not to disrupt the carefully choreographed event.

After the July showing, I wrote to KCTS 9 and offered to work with them on historical portions of their promotional materials lest the embarrassing history errors be repeated.  I received no response.  At the public August preview event, I walked up to the KCTS 9 staff table to reiterate my offer and received a polite, but emphatic brush-off.  (This came not entirely as a surprise, as KCTS 9, two years prior, had rejected my panel participation when they staged—on UW campus no less—a jubilant fund-raiser promotion of “Last Days in Vietnam,” despite the widespread criticism of the film’s grave historical inaccuracies.) The August public showing, with a pre-recorded, Seattle-specific message by Burns and Novick piped in, was set in a heavily militarized warm-up program. A military band from a nearby US army base played, and a nationalist ritual was imposed on the captive audience (who had only come to watch a few clips of a documentary) when they were exhorted to rise for the American national anthem. Unlike Burns and Novick in July, the KCTS 9 MC only asked military veterans of the war in Viet Nam to stand and be recognized. No one else broadly involved in the American Viet Nam War era received that special welcome.  (I know of veterans in the audience who wanted to stand neither for the anthem nor the one-sided recognition.)

I am open-minded about the series and look forward to seeing it, but what I encountered in the preview run-up stage is inauspicious.  I do not expect this to be a documentary with an academic give-and-take, arguments over events and interpretations, not even a journalistic search for evidence and factual accuracy.  This is a filmmaker’s artistic take on the war, unabashedly prescriptive in its message, and most interested in what “Vietnam” did to (his ideal of) America.  And with a nation-wide PBS network to do the cheer-leading.  It is an odd media organization that will not provide for a critical engagement with a historical documentary, but is only interested in boosterism.

In this regard, see Ian Parker’s very insightful, intriguing and sometimes damning piece on Ken Burns and his brand of film-making in yesterday’s The New Yorker magazine.  It is clear from reading it that we, as scholars of Viet Nam, should not have too high academic expectation of the upcoming series.

—> NB2: I am pretty sure a few of our VSG colleagues were consultants to the Burns/Novick series.  It would be great to hear their take on the experience.  Or did they have to sign non-disclosure agreements?

C. Giebel
History / Int’l. Studies