In a New Yorker article on Ken Burns that is somewhat reminiscent of the mainstream media's love of "fake but accurate" truth, Ian Parker
describes some of the the filmmaker's uses of more or less acceptable "tricks" (is that the correct word?) in order to forward — what else? — the narrative.
Several of the things that the lifelong Democrat says make sense — such as the tongue-in-cheek comment regarding the academy's having “done a terrific job in the last
hundred years of murdering our history” — but some of us are not convinced that that an Obamaniac like him is the person to hold the solution to a tone of fairness and impartiality.
Elsewhere, the New Yorker's Ian Parker
explains the narrative according to Ken Burns:
Even more than Peter Coyote, the actor who has become Burns’s usual
narrator, Burns makes a script sound like a eulogy read by a depressive,
with every sentence suggesting slight disappointment. (“He doesn’t like
rising tones,” Coyote told me. “Occasionally I get away with it.” He
added, “What I’m able to do is thread the listener through sentences
with lots of subordinate clauses.”)
… when the narration [of “The Vietnam War”] begins, its liturgical phrasing, and its reach for a negotiated settlement among viewers, will seem familiar.
… After the success of “The Civil War,” some
academic historians praised Burns, but others lamented his popular
reach, and accused him of sappiness and nostalgia. In a collection of
essays by historians about “The Civil War,” Leon Litwack noted how the
last episode jumps ahead to the gatherings of Union and Confederate
veterans, at Gettysburg, in 1913 and 1938: the effect is “to underscore
and celebrate national reunification and the birth of the modern
American nation, while ignoring the brutality, violence, and racial
repression on which that reconciliation rested.” Eric Foner, similarly,
wrote that “Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great
human drama of emancipation.”
Burns, in a 1994
interview, said that the academy had “done a terrific job in the last
hundred years of murdering our history.” He told me that criticism of
his work was at times “gratuitous and petty,” or powered by jealousy.
lets Ken Burns take us through an example of a trick he uses:
When I saw Burns in Sunapee, he argued that
fastidiousness about photographic authenticity would restrict his
ability to tell stories of people cut off from cameras by poverty or
geography. He then explained what, at Florentine Films, is known as
Broyles’s Law. In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft,
entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana
politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan
Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account
of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state
troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually
had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted.
spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the
former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game
paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that
coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player
his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious.
As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player
is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what
time it is, and we send him back in.” Broyles’s
Law, then, is: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him
what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” The photograph
of Long and the troopers stayed in the film.
Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible
law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This
would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want.
I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian
He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s “Bells from the
Deep,” which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as
stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s O.K. And then there are
other people who’d rather do reënactments than have a photograph that’s
vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty
much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done
the honorable job.”
I later spoke to Herzog, who is a friend of Burns’s. Talking of “The Vietnam War,” he said, “I binge-watched it. I would feel itching:
‘Let’s continue.’ ” When he was through, he called Burns. “I just said,
‘This is very big.’ ” The film had flaws, he told me, “but it doesn’t
matter.” The project was at once sweeping and serious. Herzog said,
“Let’s focus on the big boulder of rock that landed in the meadow and
nobody knows how it materialized.”
Update: Justifying Betrayal of Vietnam Emerges as the Raison d’être Of Ken Burns’ Film on the War
by Phillip Jennings in the New York Sun:
The arguments Mr. Burns presents are weak,
biased, and insulting. The documentary is scripted to evoke sorrow and
moral indignation over what was presented as American error, ineptness,
and lack of moral purpose.
The narrative counterposes happy and earnest winners (the communists)
with sad and angst-ridden losers (America and the South Vietnamese). It
deemed only such perspectives worthy of inclusion. Mr. Burns fails to
find even one American or South Vietnamese veteran who wholly supported
the war, was proud to have appeared in arms, and sickened by the United
States’ abandonment its freedom-seeking ally.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of us.
No doubt, too, there were North Vietnamese who are critical of the
brutality of the communist conduct of the war, but Mr. Burns can’t find
them either. We have no way of knowing whether the happy and earnest
communist veterans who did appear in the documentary participated in the
war crimes — the execution of thousands of civilians — in Hue or any of
the countless acts of North Vietnamese-sponsored terrorism.
The Burns documentary accepts without question five pillars of the liberal view of the war: …
Read the whole thing
™. Phillips ends with his own description of the Vietnam War:
Mr. Burns is wrong in every instance.
Nor is the war hard to understand. The French asked for our help to
save their Indochina colony after their 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu. We
refused. Ho Chi Minh erected a typical communist dictatorship. He was
the kind of a nationalist who slaughters his own people and governs with
force. So about a million North Vietnamese fled south to Free Vietnam
before America became involved in the war. Yet never during the next
bloody 20 years did anyone from South Vietnam flee to the north. Never.
The U.S. sent advisors. The communists received arms from China and
Russia. The war escalated. We sent tens of thousands of combat troops,
beginning with the Marines in 1965. The war dragged on, but the
communists could not win a significant battle. The Chinese and Russian
“uncles” began to tire of the cost and loss of face and pressured the
North to open peace talks. Hanoi begged for and received a last ditch
supply (enough to outfit multiple battalions of communist troops).
Convincing themselves that the southerners would rally to their side
when they overwhelmed the cities and villages in South Vietnam, the
North Vietnamese launched a suicidal attack on 100 towns. They were
soundly defeated in every one of them in under a week, save Hue (the
royal capital) where they held off the South Vietnamese and U.S. Marines
long enough to slaughter thousands of the Hue citizens before being
beaten back into the jungle. The Viet Cong, more or less the local boys
and comprising most of the 50,000 communist troops lost in Tet, were
Management of the war changed after Tet. Although the American press
decided we were losing and began lobbying the public to get out of the
war, the military began a four-year pummeling of communist troops.
Nixon, elected to stop the war, pulled American combat units out of
South Vietnam and simultaneously unleashed U.S. air power, including
bombing sanctuaries in Cambodia and the Hai Phong harbor in North
By the fall of 1972, the communists were depleted of morale and arms.
Agreeing to a peace conference, they nevertheless tested Nixon by
attacking South Vietnamese villages in contradiction of the peace
process. Nixon responded with the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam.
Ridiculously referred to as a criminal act akin to the Holocaust and
Hiroshima (it killed less than half the number of people killed at the
World Trade Center on 9/11), the bombing of the north convinced the
communists that they were helpless against the full strength of the
A month later, in January 1973, the North Vietnamese signed the Paris
Peace Treaty. At that time, South Vietnam enjoyed a democratically
elected government. American combat forces were gone. American POWs were
set free. America promised South Vietnam that we would come to its aid
if North Vietnam violated the agreement. It looked a lot like victory.
However, the North Vietnamese had not one particle, not one gluon of
an intention of adhering to the treaty. They staged increasingly strong
attacks in South Vietnam and, while the United States did nothing, were
re-armed by Moscow and attacked and overran South Vietnam. The American
Congress, controlled by Nixon’s opponents in the Democratic Party, which
had driven him from the White House, voted to renege on our treaty
obligations and cut aid to our South Vietnamese allies.
They forfeited outright the peace for which almost 60,000 Americans
and hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fought and died. They
accepted no responsibility for the atrocities that followed.
It is the raison d’être of Mr. Burns’ film to justify the cowardly
and morally bankrupt left that supported the communist invasion of South
Vietnam and turned its back on the murder, imprisonment, and misery of
our former allies in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. One cannot be against
the South Vietnamese without being for the communists who conquered and
enslaved 17 million people. Only by painting the war as immoral,
illegal, and un-winnable, and the South Vietnamese government as evil
and inept, can the American left hope to rest in peace. It shouldn’t bet
the farm on that.