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THE VIETNAM WAR – AN INTIMATE HISTORY (ALFRED A. KNOPF)

By , • Jan 24th, 2018 •

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Ken Burns must be taking some mighty powerful ulcer medication; he continually finds himself pitted against himself with each ensuing epic documentary production.  Plus he’s already done one called THE WAR.

With creative partner Lynn Novick he has fashioned this ten-part, 990-minute mega-doc, which immerses us in the terrible conflict. The complex structure of that doomed endeavor is given a clear-headed (if extremely convoluted) presentation.  After the first disc, with its feature-length overview from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the subsequent discs analyze a few years at a time, giving us a micro-view of the war.

The United States’ involvement in Nam was my time period.  I have a friend who fought in the TET Offensive (1968), the worst year of the war, and somehow (a complete mystery to him) lived to tell about it.   I’ve heard tales of Nam from him that have never been told, and I can see that there must be volumes still lying in wait to see the light of day. But knowing at least a tad about Nam from his perspective, I viewed Chapter 6 with careful scrutiny.  This hour-and-a-half chapter covers the TET period, from January to July ’68, with the North, and their allies the Viet Cong, going for the gold, and though they failed to derail the South’s resolve, they nonetheless turned the tide of the war because America realized that things weren’t going according to plan. I was impressed by the choices Burns & Novick made – the placement and narrative drive of the talking heads, the incorporation of found footage (both B&W and color), the rising temperature back home, the no-nonsense overview of Peter Coyote’s narration.  Its rhythms are beautifully structured.  Remarkable filmmaking.

In the Knopf book, THE VIETNAM WAR – AN INTIMATE HISTORY, which serves as a superb companion to the film, in its preface by Burns and Novick, the filmmakers seem to anticipate, acknowledge, and explain why, despite the film’s 18-hour running time, much remained untold.  “There is no single truth in war, as this difficult story reminded us at every turn.  Each of us can only see the world as we are: we are all prisoners of our own experience.  We did not set out to answer every question embedded in this lamentable chapter in history.  With open minds and open hearts we simply tried to listen to the brave and honest testimony of a remarkable group of men and women.  If we have been able to find some meaning in this devastating calamity, it is in no small measure thanks to their generosity, humility, and humanity, for which we are profoundly grateful.”

As a companion piece to the film, here is a story related to the book concerning the TET offensive mentioned above.  This concerns Lieutenant Tobias Wolff from Washington:  “The streets seemed more crowded than usual,” Wolff remembered, but he had no inkling that some of the strangers he passed were NFL fighters waiting for the signal that would soon launch Le Duan’s General Offensive, General Uprising  “They had been coming into Myh Tho for weeks,” Wolff wrote years later.  “The [South] Vietnamese didn’t know, the American advisers didn’t know.  The town was full of them and nobody said a word.  I wouldn’t forget that afterward – not a word of warning from anyone.  For weeks they were all around us, on the streets, in the restaurants, gathering for the great slaughter and tasting the pleasures of the town until it began.”

“In the park, Wolff and the sergeant wandered among “the puppet shows, the jugglers, and fire-eaters” until he wrote, he decided to try his hand at a “dingy shooting gallery with a couple of antique .22s. A stoop-shouldered man, tall for a Vietnamese, took the place to my right.  A pair of younger fellows stood behind him and cheered him on.  He shot well.  So did I.  We didn’t acknowledge that we were competing but we were, definitely.  Then I missed some and quit for fear I’d miss more. ’Good shooting,’ I said to him.  He inclined his head and smiled.  It might have been an innocent smile, but I think of it now as a complicated, terrible smile.”

Wolff’s story reminded me of Act one of Guillermo Del Toro’s film, MIMIC, in which genetically altered roaches grow to human size in the subways. By pulling their wings around themselves and ducking their heads down, they look like ascetic monks.  The human population hurries about, attending to their daily tasks, while these tall, dark creatures pass among them unnoticed.

The film and the book each hold you in their distinctive thrall.

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