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Film Notes: Ken Burns’ Team Creates ‘The Vietnam War’ for PBS, With a Screening in Hanover

  • Portraits of filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein taken on May 3, 2017. Credit: Stephanie Berger

  • November 1967 On the Go Cong River in the Mekong Delta, a sailor mans a river patrol boat's .50-calibre machine gun. JOC Robert D. Moeser, U.S. Navy.

  • USA. New York. 1970. "Hard-Hats" demonstrate in favor of the Vietnam War.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 07, 2017

Will Americans gather around their televisions, night after September night with parents, children, friends and neighbors, to experience the Ken Burns team’s next documentary for PBS, the way so many did for The Civil War in 1990?

If admission sales to next week’s sneak preview in Hanover of excerpts from Burns and co-director Lynn Novick’s 10-part, 18-hour series The Vietnam War offer a hint, the filmmakers have cause for hope: On Thursday morning, the Hopkins Center reported no tickets remained for next Thursday’s screening at the 900-seat Spaulding Auditorium.

Count Novick, a longtime collaborator with Burns, among the optimists that viewers will tune in starting Sept. 17 and stay the course.

“It’s not a conventional, male-dominated war story,” Novick said last week, during a phone conversation from Colorado. “It’s more a story about families than about troop movements and the big battles.

“I think men and women equally are going to watch this film with their children.”

Burns promises that viewers won’t need to worry about a lot of usual-suspect talking heads — either prime movers-and-shakers of the time or historians — pontificating on the Vietnam era and its aftermath.

“Even if he were alive, I definitely wouldn’t want a (Robert) McNamara (U.S. secretary of defense during the 1960s), who’d be wanting to polish his image,” Burns said last week, during a phone interview from the editing room of his Florentine Films studio in Walpole, N.H. “We didn’t want anyone editing the past.”

Not even John McCain, the U.S. senator who spent almost seven years in North Vietnamese prison camps, often undergoing torture, after being shot down in his Navy fighter jet? Nor John Kerry, the Navy swift-boat commander who became an antiwar activist before going on to serve in the Senate and as U.S. Secretary of State?

“We wanted them involved, but behind the scenes,” Novick recalled. “In a way, they were relieved not to tell their stories again.”

Other behind-the-scenes experts include Dartmouth history professor Edward Miller. The heart of the project, however, was the filmmakers’ search for and interviews with hundreds of witnesses and survivors of the war on all sides of what amounted to a civil war not only in Vietnam but in the United States.

Burns, who in addition to The Civil War directed and produced a long documentary about World War II, estimates that 150 of those survivors and witnesses — South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, North Vietnamese soldiers and infiltrators, American protesters and draft evaders as well as U.S. soldiers, among them Army veteran Mike Heaney, a resident of Hartland — share memories on-screen.

“I think Vietnam tested us in a way that we had not been tested before, having to do with the complexity of the subject and that Americans would prefer to ignore it,” Burns said. “If you go by the popular movies about the war that came out in the first decade or so, it’s as if the Vietnamese themselves didn’t exist. We wanted to know how the South Vietnamese civilian was feeling. We also wanted to know what the Viet Cong guerrilla was thinking.”

On one of their three trips to Vietnam, Novick and producer Sarah Botstein — another veteran of Burns’ Florentine Films in Walpole — interviewed one such guerrilla for a sequence that goes back and forth with U.S. soldiers describing the same battle.

“This guerrilla recalls watching the Americans gathering up their dead and wounded, crying over the buddies they’d lost,” Novick said. “He said to us, ‘You know, it made me realize the Americans have humanity, just like we do.’ That’s one of the things we wanted to do with this series.

“It’s flipping the mirror around.”

Novick and Burns began talking about how and when to approach Vietnam when Novick served as an associate producer on The Civil War.

“In 1990 it was too recent,” Novick recalled. “Then Vietnam gradually got farther away, and during the production of The War (the World War II series), we said, ‘We’re ready.’ Vietnam is the most important event in American history since the Second World War, the most divisive since the Civil War.”

How divisive, the filmmakers grew to appreciate near the end of postproduction.

“We’re living in such a polarized and divisive moment now that gets worse by the day,” Novick continued. “You can see the seeds of that in the Vietnam War. We trying to stay focused on the film, with so many perspectives to work with, but in the meantime, our country is becoming more divided, less civil.”

 After more than a decade of assembling the story, Novick, Burns and their teammates saw many emotions bubble to the surface the first time they watched the final product end to end.

“I’ve never cried like that,” Novick said. “We were all crying. Part of it was that it was the most challenging, intellectually, physically even, thing that we’d done. And the other part of it was that it was such an epic tragedy.”

The first of the 10 episodes of The Vietnam War will premiere on public television on Sept. 17. To see a trailer for the series, visit hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/the-vietnam-war.

Coming Attractions

Can’t get enough of the versatile Christopher Plummer, especially when he’s surrounded by a skilled cast? Starting tonight at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, Pentangle Arts this weekend is giving us four cracks at the sly Canadian fox’s next picture, The Exception: the Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Set during World War II, the thriller finds Plummer portraying German Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in the occupied Netherlands, where the servants at his mansion include a young Jewish maid (Lily James of Downton Abbey, Cinderella and Baby Driver renown) trying to pass as a gentile — just as a German military investigator is arriving to check on the Kaiser. While the soldier (Jai Courtney) finds himself falling for the maid, SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) drops in with a substantial platoon of Nazis. Screenings are scheduled for 7:30 tonight, Saturday night, Sunday night and Monday night. Tickets cost $7 for Pentangle members, $8 for children and seniors and $9 for adults.

Don’t let the title fool you: The new documentary Hired Guns, which the Flying Monkey Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H., will screen four times starting on July 19, explores the world of anonymous side men and women on whom the biggest acts in rock and pop call first when they need just the right vibe and sound for a concert. If you enjoyed the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, about backup singers to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, this sounds like a promising follow-up.

Screenings at the Flying Money are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on July 19, 26, 29 and 30. To reserve tickets ($7 to $10) and learn more, visit flyingmonkeynh.com or call 603-526-2551.

The Nature of Things

Dartmouth College’s Black Family Visual Arts Center will screen An Art that Nature Makes, the documentary about the work of photographer Rosamond Purcell, on July 16 at the center’s Loew Auditorium. After the movie, which starts at 4, Purcell will talk about the movie and her work. An exhibition of her work, by the same title as the movie, is underway at the BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt. To reserve tickets ($5 to $10) to and learn more about the movie, visit hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422. For more information about the exhibition in Rochester, visit bigtowngallery.com/exhibitions.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.