I first experienced the world outside of 1970s Onehunga thanks to a 21-inch black-and-white PYE TV. It made me pee my pyjamas as Daleks harassed Doctor Who, clap as the All Blacks ran amok with the pre-video-ref abandon of Viking pillagers, and it was through this hazy portal that I saw a naked Vietnamese girl running from the flames of a napalm attack on her village; Phan Thi Kim Phuc, only 9 years old.
In my memory she was still on fire as she ran, which of course she wasn't, but watching it back in The Vietnam War, I learnt that she was in flames only minutes before the film and iconic photograph were taken. I was 7 years old as I watched this horror show from a place that may as well have been on the moon.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's epic series contains their back-stories and much more besides.
Its scope is at once encyclopaedic, personal, macro and micro. It's exhaustive and a little exhausting.
Because of a scheduling snafu there were no participants available to be interviewed for Burns' magnum opus, The Civil War. Letters, photographs and sound design told that tale. It's rightly considered one of the greatest war narratives of all time, but this one hits closer to home and is all the more powerful for it. It also contains some of the most remarkable first-hand accounts recorded on film. I grew up familiar with the main players of WW2, via the English version of history served to us in the Antipodes.
Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Monty, Patton. There was a guy called Stalin but he got less screen time, as he was a dirty commie.
The scale of the Russian involvement in that war seemed like a footnote when it was anything but.
I also thought I knew a bit about the Vietnam war until I sat down to start my slow binge through this 18-hour master class. The 'things I didn't know' started to pile up like dead bodies. As the Vietnam War progressed, the metric of success employed by American propagandists was the difference between the number of North Vietnamese deaths to US ones, the so-called 'kill ratio'. This vastly favoured the US and one would assume by counting those particular beans that the bottom line would be a Yankee victory. Spoiler alert: It didn't.
Burns and Novick employ a ticking clock, starting with a handful of US dead in the early years, and jumping towards to final 50,000 towards the end. As the hours of the series tick by, the number grows, revealing a glacial shit-storm of politics and prevarication.
Though we look back fondly on him now, it was John F. Kennedy who started this American disaster and it was Lyndon Johnson who made it grow. Thanks to audio recordings we hear how Johnson and defence secretary Robert McNamara, he of Fog Of War fame, saw the shape of things as decidedly pear, right from the get go. The monkey on their back was the US voter who has no taste for the withdrawal technique.
In later episodes, Nixon faces the same dilemma. His story is also told via audio recordings of phone calls, which is a compelling tool as it comes mostly unfiltered. Nothing captured in a formal interview can ever get us as close to hearing the cogs of power grinding sound loudly and so close to the source.
"I feel like a jackrabbit in a Texas hailstorm," Johnson laments down the phone. "There's nowhere to shelter, I can't outrun it and I can't make it stop." It's a recurring theme; everyone knew it would end in tears but no one knew how to stop.
The hubris of a superpower that has never lost a war, whose mainland has never been invaded, and who possesses a supersized arsenal, becomes the cloud that looms over this great tragedy. Burns and Novick are skilled at painting the myriad shades of grey that complete the picture. We do get big servings of Vietnamese perspective and history, but like the kill tally, the ratio remains a little one-sided.
The music cues are superb. Dylan, The Beatles, Hendrix etc. It's hardly a silver lining but no other war has coincided with or been influenced by so many great tunes.
Yes, Burns' epics do tend to wear you down. I suspect many people will start but not finish this, but to me it's a journey well worth the hike.
This belongs on the top shelf of the genre, along with The World at War. The voice of Laurence Olivier was the adhesive in that 1980s landmark, while Sir Michael Redgrave boomed majestically over the original televisual war tome, The Great War (1964). Peter Coyote does the honours here. The dude is a master of tone, pace, and is in possession of a larynx that reverberates with spellbinding, causal gravitas. But it's in the words of the soldiers and the civilians that you will find yourself in tears.
Watch - The Vietnam War (TVNZ On Demand)