It’s rare for someone who makes TV documentaries to become the subject of one. But earlier this year, Tom Hanks hosted a tribute show called Ken Burns: America’s Storyteller. Colleagues, historians and even presidents praised the work of a film-maker who has consistently encouraged Americans to look to their past.
Burns made his name with The Civil War in 1990, analysing historical divisions in the US from 1861-65. Now, he burnishes his supremacy among factual film-makers by tackling the second great nation-splitting conflict that occurred exactly a century later.
The Vietnam War – co-directed by Burns and his regular collaborator, Lynn Novick – has the advantage over The Civil War of being able to feature personal testimony and TV news footage but otherwise repeats the virtues of his earlier series: authoritative commentary, exhaustive research and scrupulous negotiation of disputed facts.
Even so, the US’s intervention on behalf of south Vietnam against the communist regime in the north created rifts in US society – between left and right, young and old – that still affect politics and culture today, making this the most contentious project Burns has ever attempted.
Such is the breadth of analysis here that Burns suggests the roots of the conflict began even before the story he told in The Civil War: the opening episode (of 10) is date-stamped “1858-1961”. Viewers’ double-take at that number 18 is soothed by a typically erudite explanation of the way French colonial ambitions in south-east Asia established faultlines that shaped the US’s later intervention.
A key insight in the opening episode comes from a retired CIA operative who argues that, when the US initially intervened on behalf of the French, it fatally assumed an overlap between De Gaulle’s imperialist ambition and the US’s anti-communist paranoia. Vietnamese resistance to French interests, the old spook says, should in retrospect have been seen “as the end of the colonial era, not the start of a cold war”.
The early programmes could have done more (especially for an international audience) to explain the toxin of anti-communism in the US at the time: there is no mention of the red-hunts of Senator McCarthy, which surely did as much to create the context for the US’s misjudgment as a mistaken solidarity with French aims.
Burns and Novick are noted for the even-handedness of their histories and here, the impartiality crucially extends to Vietnamese testimony. During a sequence on a surprise US military setback early in the conflict, a former north Vietnamese guerrilla fighter remembers: “From that moment, we were no longer scared of the enemy.”
As always in Burns’s work, there’s a sense of days of conversations edited down to killer lines. A diplomat recalls US commander General Westmoreland boasting that he was killing 10 Vietnamese for every one American casualty, and being told: “But Westy, Americans don’t care about the 10, they care about the one.”
The speakers are captioned with their roles at the time: “Neil Sheehan, journalist”; “Karl Marlantes, marine.” Those intros omit to say that these witnesses went on to write definitive accounts of the war – Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, Marlantes’ Matterhorn – but this literary hinterland explains the high quality of their contributions. “We thought we were an exception to history: the Americans,” says Sheehan. “We thought we would never fight a wrong war.”
In any history of conflict, the dead must also speak, and this happens extraordinarily in the third and fourth parts. An elderly US woman recalls how she once read to her young son, who was obsessed with war stories, the pre-Agincourt speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Her boy, Denton Crocker Jr, went into the breach in Vietnam. We know at once from the wet glint in her eyes that he didn’t come safe home, but the story of the 19-year-old’s sacrifice in a war that Americans soon disowned is wrenchingly told through his family’s memories, intercut with battle footage from the first war fought on television.
Among the illustrations is a Christmas message the Crockers recorded for a local TV station that was giving troops’ families the chance to say a festive hello to the boys over there. The inclusion of this astonishing clip is a testimony to the archive research that is the meat of any Burns piece. Treasures here include Vietnamese propaganda paintings of plummeting US helicopters and, in another impressive section, colour footage from Kennedy home movies, showing JFK preparing for a TV interview on Vietnam. A fragment of news film catches a wounded US soldier flashing at the camera a look of pleading despair that seems to implore the folks at home to resist this war. As often in the series, seconds of screen-time hint at months of work.
Even the musical score is lovingly done: subtle new compositions by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, avoiding the obvious emotional manipulation of Hollywood soundtracks, are interspersed with period songs from politically committed songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Occasionally, Burns’ and Novick’s approach may be too pure. Aiming for neutrality, Peter Coyote’s narration (of a script by historian Geoffrey C Ward) sometimes succumbs to stentorian monotony. And a preference for specially recorded interviews means the directors deny themselves the use, except in voiceover precis, of the revelations in The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara, the 2003 documentary by Errol Morris in which the US defence secretary responsible for escalating US involvement in Vietnam gave an extraordinary self-flagellating account of his errors.
Vietnam is a rare war for which Britain (thanks to Harold Wilson) didn’t sign up, so UK viewers watch with a historical disinterest that could never be the case for any American. But The Vietnam War means that students of US history are – for the second time – indebted to Burns for the far better essays they will now be able to write – and so too are viewers everywhere: these are TV histories that will stand for ever in the history of TV.
The Vietnam War starts on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.
Adi Sideman's crude documentary "Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys," has an inflammatory title that belies its even-handed portrait of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, the notorious pedophile organization better known as Nambla.
The film, which opens today at Cinema Village, is built around interviews with several men whose professed objects of desire are youths under the legal age of consent. One after another, they defend themselves against the view of Nambla as an organization of sadistic child molesters and pornographers, arguing that Nambla is a civil rights organization opposed to the age-of-consent laws. The more outspoken among them talk of child liberation in a "sexophobic" society.
Nambla's opponents, like Tom McDonough, who founded a conservative action group called Straight Kids U.S.A., are also heard from. Mr. McDonough is shown yelling "Baby-raper!" in a demonstration outside the apartment of a Nambla member. Participants in the 1993 gay and lesbian march on Washington express chagrin at having a Nambla contigent march in their ranks. And a Nambla member, Renato Corazzo, is shown monitoring obscene hate messages on the organization's hot line.
Nambla, founded in 1978, claims a membership of around 1,500. Besides the hot line, it publishes a monthly newsletter illustrated with photos of pubescent boys.
Among those interviewed is Peter Melzer, a teacher at the Bronx High School of Science who was suspended from his job when it became known that he was a Nambla member. Mr. Melzer says he has never broken the law.
The film's most outspoken and vivid personality, Leyland Stevenson, was imprisoned several years ago for distributing child pornography. He describes his sexual relations with boys in the quasi-religious language of a persecuted fanatic. He even allows the camera to show him cruising in a suburban mini-mall. From his attitude of messianic hauteur, it is clear why Mr. Stevenson was chased out of his West Virginia town. And his creepy grandiosity casts a clammy chill over the film.Continue reading the main story