The day before sitting down with his co-director Lynn Novick to discuss his comprehensive new documentary “The Vietnam War,” filmmaker Ken Burns turned 64.
That makes him just old enough to have had skin in the game when it came to the 10-year-long conflict that divided a nation.
“I had a high draft number in the last year they were doing the lottery,” Burns says. “By then, they weren’t taking anyone anyway, because [Pres. Richard] Nixon had withdrawn from Vietnam, but it was still it was a big deal and something my friends had been talking about for years.
Being alive at that time didn’t necessarily help him when it came to making “The Vietnam War,” an 18-hour, 10-part series beginning to air on PBS on Sunday. He wryly adds he wasn’t around for the events of “The Civil War,” his famed and ever-popular opus.
“I went in thinking I knew a lot about it, because it had been a great part of my life when I was young, but I found out how little I knew,” he says.
“The Vietnam War” took more than 10 years to make at a reported cost of $30 million. Its sweep is amazingly broad and deep.
The documentary offers viewers wide-ranging perspectives of the war. Along with archival footage, the documentary uses nearly 80 interviews, including many Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides.
Burns says even those who participated in the documentary, as well as experts of Vietnam brought in to consult on the film, would inevitably tell him they learned something new watching it. (An accompanying companion book –written by Geoffrey C. Ward, with an introduction by Burns and Novick – was recently published.)
The Vietnam War cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and deeply divided the nation. A giant anti-war protest emerged, particularly when the military draft was instituted, affecting white middle- and upper-class families.
“I think it’s pretty interesting that eventually the people of the United States rose up against a war,” observes Burns. “For all the loss, there is a point at which, in some weird way, the system worked.”
Still, more than 40 years after the decade-long conflict ended, its effects still continue impacting the country today.
The filmmakers, however, weren’t looking for any one hook or an angle in making the documentary. “We were less interested in…