War stories: Through the looking glass with Vietnam documentarian Lynn Novick

Lynn Novick appears on Thursday to discuss “The Vietnam War” documentary series, which she co-directed with Ken Burns. Courtesy Virginia Film Festival Lynn Novick appears on Thursday to discuss “The Vietnam War” documentary series, which she co-directed with Ken Burns. Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

To tell the full story of Vietnam along all of its harrowing dimensions, the producers of an epic new film series about the war required 10 years of research, more than 100 personal interviews and a healthy dose of humility. “I personally have been obsessed with the Vietnam War for most of my adult life,” says Lynn Novick, who co-directed “The Vietnam War,” a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary, with longtime collaborator Ken Burns. “But it was still humbling and exhilarating to find out how little we really knew about it.”

The conflict, spanning the terms of five U.S. presidents and killing 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, was so sprawling and divisive that even those who were immersed in it—soldiers, protesters and leaders alike—have struggled to make sense of what happened or to find common ground with other points of view. Many chose to bury the memories and move on.

Fifty years hence, Novick and her team made creative choices aiming to fill the gaps in the war’s oft-distorted narratives, beginning with the voices they included in the film. In addition to hearing from Americans impacted by the war, Novick made four trips to Vietnam to interview military and civilian Vietnamese from both the north and south.

Taking the time to establish trust and a connection with her subjects is a hallmark of Novick’s technique. “They dealt with the same emotions as our soldiers,” she says. “They had leaders who were imperfect at best, and were all trying to survive a horrific event. It’s like going through the looking glass and looking at ourselves from the way they saw us.”

In a similar vein, the film features interviews with ordinary Americans and their families rather than “famous” decision-makers and celebrities such as Henry Kissinger or Jane Fonda. “They’ve had their say, many times over,” says Novick. “We wanted to hear from people that you didn’t know and hadn’t heard from, and who maybe didn’t have a legacy to protect.”

The daunting task of sifting through hundreds of thousands of photographs and huge quantities of newsreel footage, audio recordings, music and photos fell to a small team of meticulous researchers and producers in New York. “Everything had to be collected, digitized and put into a database so we knew what we had when we needed it,” says Novick. Marc Selverstone and Ken Hughes of the Miller Center at UVA provided vital guidance and legwork in finding key bits of presidential audio from their archives.

Popular songs by artists from Bob Dylan to the Beatles, inserted in the timeline precisely when they were first released, imbue the film with authenticity and tension. “A lot of these compositions and recordings are national treasures, and the artists wanted assurances that they would be used in their historic context in a meaningful way.”

Among the most important tracks was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio,” released just after the Kent State protest shootings and never before licensed, which took a year of negotiations with producers to secure.

To give the film its deft cohesion, Novick and Burns orchestrated every episode along with their writer Geoffrey Ward and producer Sarah Botstein. “Little by little we have to put our arms around the entire show and try to wrestle it to the ground piece by piece,” says Novick. “We have to boil it down to make it into a watchable film, and it’s a long process that takes many years.”

Now, finally, the film has reached its ultimate audience: the people who lived through the war and others who wish to learn from it. In Charlottesville, even as local veterans debate how the documentary covered issues such as the valor of combat troops, the U.S. media’s skewed portrayal of important battles and the deep impact of PTSD on returning soldiers, they agree on its potential to enlighten older and, especially younger, generations of Americans.

“I think it’s a good thing to revisit at this point,” says retired Marine Colonel James T. O’Kelley Jr., who commanded forces for three years in Vietnam. “I see cities burning overseas, and it feels like we haven’t learned what we should have.”

Army veteran Tom Oakley says the film revived intensely personal memories, but also provided some healing. “Coming home was the hardest part because of the way we were treated,” says Oakley. He was moved by an apology from a protester in one episode of the film.

Bruce Eades was drafted into the Marine Corps and learned to speak Vietnamese before being sent to the war zone, where he survived the Tet Offensive. Now serving as commander of the American Legion Post in Keswick, Eades says the film has given him a measure of hope. “Maybe it’s not too late for us to learn from the war,” he says. “Maybe something like this can unify us. I think we need today’s young people to learn from history, to lift us up, to save us.”

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