On the Red Couch with Filmmaker Ken Burns

Gabriella Schwarz / September 17, 2017

Tim Llewellyn Photography

Historic events, captivating interviews, still images that come to life, heartbreaking words—these are the characteristics that have become synonymous with American filmmaker Ken Burns over the last four decades. With each of his new projects, conventional wisdom about a major event is questioned, explored and dissected, always beautifully.

His eye and lens have most recently been turned on The Vietnam War, for a 10-part, 18-hour long project 10 years in the making. When the first installation premieres this Sunday on PBS, Burns said viewers will experience the events of Vietnam from every viewpoint.

“Our biggest thing was to make our collection as expansive as possible and that meant shedding our own preconceptions, our own baggage,” Burns told us.

Though parallels can easily be drawn between the political climate of Vietnam and present day, the series was complete before Donald Trump’s political rise, and Burns said the filmmaking was beholden only to the facts.

“History is kind of like armor that allows you to go into the daily battle with a lot more information,” he said.

What was missing from the Vietnam War narrative that you wanted to fill?
It’s less what was missing—and I can get to that in a second—than just taking the time to look at Vietnam with fresh eyes. Scholarship has taken place over the last four decades that has just completely rearranged our understanding of it. There’s unusual access to Vietnam, not only the country itself but its archives and, most importantly, its people. And our own folks who participated in the war, or who participated in the war against the war (the protests), are beginning to reach that stage of life, in their 60s and early 70s, where they want to talk about it and not keep it bundled up inside.

To answer to your first question: the biggest thing [that was missing] is that when Americans have talked about Vietnam, they’ve talked only about themselves. The Vietnamese themselves have been almost hordes of black pajamaed soldiers running at our heroes…It was hugely important for us to…integrate and intertwine and intergrade all of the narratives: the American military and political narratives, from the top down but also from the bottom up; the journalists’ narratives and those of Gold Star mothers. On the Vietnamese side, we talked to North Vietnamese soldiers and Hanoi civilians, Viet Cong guerrillas and ARVN, the South Vietnamese army soldiers, along with the Saigon civilians and protesters and diplomats. We have essentially triangulated the Vietnam War in a way that I don’t think has been done before and with that triangulation comes an ability to better our understanding of that war.

You mentioned the narratives that were missing so can you talk about the narratives you explored and what you learned about the war during this process?
First and foremost would be the experiences of the soldiers. They’re the ones who are literally putting their lives on the line and whether it’s American Army men or Marines or Navy pilots, POWs, helicopter pilots, doctors or nurses, that experience is just so important to integrate into a larger narrative. There have been other Vietnam documentaries that are looking from the top down and we wanted to do that as well, and have, but also from the bottom up.

I think also the integration of the presidential tapes, the Johnson and Nixon tapes, give us the unique view. You’re hearing that though the president may have gone out that day and said everything’s going fine, back in the Oval Office or on the telephone he’s admitting to grave doubts. I think that adds a kind of human dimension.

Our biggest thing was to make our collection as expansive as possible and that meant shedding our own preconceptions, our own baggage. We didn’t have a political agenda; we didn’t want to score political points. We wanted to be umpires calling balls and strikes so everybody got the same clear-eyed lens on them. I think it’s the integration of these different perspectives into a vast canvas that is perhaps what is new about this.

Can you talk about the human toll on the soldiers and also our leaders? And what do you hope this shows about that toll?
War is, of course, the most brutal and inhumane thing that humans not only do but will always do. The study of war brings out that obvious inhumanity but also special moments of grace, of love, of fellowship, and, obviously, of courage. In our film, that courage doesn’t always take place on the battlefield; it takes place off the battlefield in principle, ethical, moral objection to the war, so we’re trying to put our arm around that.

We talk about PTSD. This is as old as there have been wars. The Greeks call it divine madness. After Vietnam, we got a clinical diagnosis. War takes its toll on everyone. It takes its toll on the family members, it takes its toll on those propagating the war, it takes its toll obviously on the people who are exposed to this vivifying experience. War is human nature on steroids and so ultimately revealing. I think what the tapes show is that it also has an effect on the politicians. Every politician involved in the Vietnam War we’re covering, from 1945 on—Truman and Eisenhower, particularly Kennedy, but most particularly Johnson and Nixon and to a lesser extent Ford—all of them are beset by the demons of what they’ve unleashed or what they’re promoting. It seems in retrospect now that almost every one of them made decisions based on domestic political consideration. That’s a polite way of saying, “Will I get reelected?” That’s not a way to run a war.

Lyndon Johnson, who to me is the most fascinating, almost Shakespearean tragedy of this story, has this broad expansive domestic agenda. He wants to be the second coming of FDR and he is. He does the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and Head Start and all of these programs. But the guns of Vietnam just make it harder and harder for him to be able to continue to promote that domestic agenda as the protests and that opposition weaken his own political power. We’re talking about a guy who was the “master of the Senate.” Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act but Kennedy never would have been able to get it through. Only Lyndon Johnson could have gotten it through, being a Southerner, knowing what the ultimate price would be. I find this fascinating.

When you hear Nixon increasingly becoming the Nixonian caricature, you’re hearing actual conversations; it’s not just somebody joking about it or somebody making some sort of superficial conventional wisdom about Nixon. You can actually hear it, and far be it for me to parse it even psychologically, let alone politically. Hearing it is enough.

In addition to the tapes, are there conversations that will stay with you or maybe even haunt you going forward?
Yeah, I think there are several. We did an interview with a Gold Star mother. She didn’t have to relive for us the worst day of her life, but she does and she does so heroically. It’s an extraordinary gift to us as filmmakers, but it was a huge burden and responsibility we felt. We carried that precious interview throughout the entire film process almost as if it were a delicate vase, trying to protect it. It was also a gift to everyone else who has lost somebody. Grief has a life that is endless. And what you see etched in the face of Jean Marie Crocker is the pain of that. She’s reading to him from Henry V the speech that “those of you who weren’t in battle aren’t man enough,” and you see that momentary flash as if you can read her mind. Did I send my son off to war? Did I do this? Was I responsible for this? It’s heartbreaking, and I will carry Jean Marie Crocker’s commentary and her daughter’s, a Gold Star sister, for the rest of my life.

I also think that one of our marines, John Musgrave, who undergoes an amazing transformation in the course of the film, is one of the most remarkable and brutally honest interviews that we’ve ever had.

I think of an interview with an Army veteran named Mike Heaney. He goes out on patrol and gets wounded. I was conducting the interview and was so anxious listening to him bring this to vivid life that when he broke down and cried, so did I. We stopped the camera and we composed ourselves and went on. I think the intensity of war will obviously do that—and when you’re liberated from political agenda. [If we weren’t, we’d] have to edit out, but we didn’t want to do that. “It’s complicated” should have been the neon sign outside our editing room because most filmmakers, when you have a scene that works and somebody comes and says, “Oh well, we’ve learned new things and it’s not that easy, it’s complicated,” you kind of go “grrr.” On this production, we just said bring it on. Even at the very end, we were moving adjectives and adverbs [in the editing process] so you couldn’t even subtly suggest we had a thumb on the scale one way or the other…We loved trying to make it as right as the latest scholarship suggested it was.

How did this compare to working on a project where there are no survivors alive and it’s a more historic look?
I’ve done two other big series on wars, The Civil War and another called The War about World War II. There are profound similarities in every instance, particularly, interestingly enough, between the Civil War and Vietnam. We tend to think that the past is fixed and that our future is malleable. But in point of fact, the past is just as malleable as we discover new information, new diaries, new journals, new documents, new photographs, or just what our present moment is interested in. History is not just what went before us. History is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. It can’t help but be informed, however consciously or subconsciously, by our hopes and our fears. That makes an interesting dynamic, and that’s why there are so many eerie similarities whenever you do history, if you engage it actively.

I could have started this conversation and told you I’d been working for 10 years on a film about mass demonstrations across the United States against the current administration, about a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks, about a president asserting the press is lying and making stories up, about asymmetrical warfare that’s bedeviling the U.S. military, about document drops about classified stolen material in the public sphere, and accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power at the time of a national election to affect that election. You’d say, “My goodness, you’re talking about the present moment.” I began this in 2006. All of those things and dozens more are true to Vietnam and only echo with the present.

Do you find that eerie?
I find that eerie, I find it intriguing more than anything. As a filmmaker and as a human being, I find it exhilarating. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the country; it educates all my parts. History, you begin to realize, is the best teacher we have. I’ll give you one example, which is when the meltdown happened in ’08, people that I knew, friends, colleagues, even scholars and people in the financial industry would say to me, “This is a depression.” And I’d go, “No, it’s not.” In the depression, in one day, one quarter of the entire state of Mississippi went on the auction block. During the Depression, in many American cities, the animals in the zoo were shot and the meat distributed to the poor. If that happens, I’ll agree we are in a depression. Just my having dealt with the Depression in [my work] arms me with an ability to put it in perspective. Even now people are wringing their hands, “Chicken little, the sky is falling!” Well, I lived through Watergate, I lived through Vietnam, I lived through the hundreds of domestic terrorist bombings that took place in protest to the Vietnam War. I’ve studied this now, and while certainly the present moment is always compelling and fraught, history gives you a perspective that helps you see it. It’s kind of like armor that allows you to go into the daily battle with a lot more information.

Do you think you need to be a good historian to be a good filmmaker?
No. The word history is mostly made up of the word story. It’s the happenstance of who I am. I wanted to be a filmmaker; I’m not trained as a historian. The last time I took a course in American history—and all of my films have been on American history—was in 11th grade. I’m interested in being a storyteller, but I chose history the way a painter might decide to work in oil as opposed to watercolor. It’s just where I work.

The laws of storytelling apply to me exactly as they do to Steven Spielberg. The only difference is he can make stuff up and I can’t. But you’re bound by the same laws of how you do it, and when you master or try to master a story it is really exhilarating.

How does your filmmaking style differ based on each subject?
There is a kind of immediate difference. You’re going to use different music: you’re using violin music in The Civil War and you’ve got The Beatles in The Vietnam War (or the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan). But there is an essential style that is the same.

It may be good to back up and agree on terminology. Style is just the authentic application of technique. That is to say, every filmmaker has dozens and dozens of tools he can employ and if you do it honorably and over time, you begin to see a similarity in style. I feel that these films are both utterly unique but also united in a kind of essential style. I guess on the surface the pace of things might be quicker, but I can find moments in The Civil War film where we’re juxtaposing imagery, maybe not with the same pace, but that’s because the music is dictating a different pace than we’re using in Vietnam. It feels like you’re making decisions as a storyteller and that’s all that matters. “Does this work?” is the only question that you ever have. Does this work?

Read more about American history and the history of the world on Flipboard.

~GabyS is learning more about the Vietnam War