On Sunday, September 17th, PBS will debut the latest project from Ken Burns and his frequent collaborator Lynn Novick: the ten-part, 18-hour series The Vietnam War. Just like Burns and Novick’s previous films The War (about WWII) and Prohibition (about American culture in the 1920s), the new documentary combines a broader historical overview with compelling personal anecdotes, providing both an analysis of a particular moment in time and a remarkable array of small, human stories.
In a way, The Vietnam War is the culmination of nearly 50 years’ worth of documentaries about one of the most complicated and difficult chapters in the history of the 20th century. Because the fighting in Vietnam corresponded with the rise of television news and a burgeoning social conscious on college campuses, both the war and the protests against it were extensively covered by every level of media, leaving behind countless hours of footage and reportage for filmmakers to pick through as they’ve attempted to understand what happened.
Independent Lens has aired several of those documentaries over the years, several of which have focused on the particulars of what was going in America while the troops were overseas. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, for example, examines the difficulties the heavyweight boxing champion faced when he refused his draft notice, and how his choice divided and to some extent changed public opinion. Many of the best films about Vietnam aren’t about what happened over there, but rather about how the moral and political implications of the war tore the U.S. apart at home.
Here’s a dozen of the most interesting “home-front” docs (some from the Independent Lens roster, some not), divided into three categories, dealing with the protest movement, the politics of the war, and how returning vets and their families coped with the aftermath.
In the Streets
Hearts and Minds (1974): President Lyndon Johnson famously justified America’s ongoing intervention in Vietnam by saying that the goal was to swat the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people away from the Soviet Union’s communist ideals. The brilliance of Peter Davis’s controversial, Oscar-winning cinematic essay Hearts and Minds is that if flips LBJ’s agenda, showing instead how nightly news images of combat demoralized U.S. citizens. A kaleidoscopic barrage of images taken from political stump-speeches, protest rallies, high school football celebrations, small-town parades, and frontline fighting, the movie offers a vision of early ‘70s America that digs into the roots of a national crisis of conscience.
The War at Home (1979)/Two Days in October (2005): The intersections of the counterculture and the antiwar movement are often traced back to the San Francisco Bay Area, but as these two documentaries show, the University of Wisconsin in Madison was as much of a hotbed of dissent as any campus on the West or East Coast. The Oscar-nominated The War at Home (available to Fandor subscribers) offers an overview of how Madison became a breeding ground for literal bomb-throwing radicals, while the Peabody-winning Two Days in October (PBS American Experience) contrasts an especially bloody engagement on the One Tranh Stream with a particularly violent protest in Madison that became national news. One film is intensely focused and the other more of a collage, but taken together they map out middle America’s engagement in activism.
Note: You can now watch Two Days in October on PBS online until November 30, 2017.
Chicago 10 (2007)/The Weather Underground (2010): To the average American, the young folks who vociferously protested the war in Vietnam formed an indistinguishable hairy mass, sprawling from coast to coast. But when some of the dissenters became infamous — and when the justice system got a hold of them — the authorities were goaded by public outrage into attempting to make an example of these hippies. Brett Morgen’s inventive animated documentary Chicago 10 looks back at Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and the other well-known agitators accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground, meanwhile, talks to the surviving members of a group which set off a series of explosions in federal buildings and banks over a period of several years. Both films are snapshots of angry young men and women, and of the society that hated and feared them. While Chicago 10 is about the emotions of its moment and The Weather Underground is more reflective, both remain relevant to our contentious current age of “resistance.”
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003): One of the great ironies of the Vietnam War was that it escalated under two consecutive Democratic administrations, forcing pacifist progressives to oppose the kind of politicians they’d ordinarily be voting for. Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning The Fog of War explains how this came to be, by letting President Kennedy and President Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara explain how he went from modernizing industrial manufacturing in the corporate sector to trying to translate his cutting-edge analytical models to foreign policy. The result is an enlightening look at how some smart, well-meaning people led the United States into a military quagmire.
The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (1982): Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, CBS News aggressively pursued the craft of documentary journalism while tracking the destructive progress of the war. The network combined both missions in the 1968 Walter Cronkite special Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?, which famously led President Johnson to lament, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” The military pushed back over a decade later, when Mike Wallace hosted The Uncounted Enemy, a 90-minute exposé, alleging that the U.S. Army under the guidance of General William Westmoreland had fudged data to persuade the American people that the war was going well. The documentary provoked a landmark libel suit — “Westmoreland v. CBS” — still taught in journalism schools. The film itself (available in pieces on YouTube) is a fascinating document of how the media kept wrestling with Vietnam, and with their own culpability in shaping public opinion.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)/1971 (2014): Because so many saw the Vietnam War as an urgent moral crisis, they were unafraid to confront the government directly — and even to break the law — to put an end to the carnage. The Most Dangerous Man in America’s subject Daniel Ellsberg, and the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” depicted in 1971, both disseminated confidential files on secret programs, informing the public about off-the-books bombings and unconstitutional surveillance targeting Americans. These films are a celebration of a nation that allows its people the freedom to stand up for what they believe in, and a warning that there’s only so much activism the powers-that-be will tolerate.
Winter Soldier (1972): One of the first major documentaries about the war was produced by a filmmaking collective, who let the men who’d just returned from Vietnam tell stories about the atrocities they’d witnessed. Criticized at the time for being overly sensationalistic — and for covering a mock war crimes tribunal that the mainstream media largely determined to be insignificant — Winter Soldier has in recent years been reevaluated as an essential record of what the folks who fought the war went through, and what they carried home.
Regret to Inform (1998): The Oscar-nominated, Peabody-winning Regret to Inform is a welcome reminder that there are always multiple “home-fronts” in any war, and that parents and spouses on both sides of the battle-lines suffer life-changing losses. Director Barbara Sonneborn’s husband was killed in action, and as a way of coming to grips with his death, she spent a decade interviewing widows in both Vietnam and the U.S., asking them what it was like for them when they got the news. This film honestly explores the vast human damage left by a geopolitical dispute.
Daughter from Danang (2002): There are few better illustrations of how international conflict rips countries and families apart than this emotionally devastating documentary, following one of the many “orphans” who were adopted by American families toward the end of the Vietnam War — and who later found out that their birth mothers were alive. Estranged from the mom who raised her, Daughter from Danang’s subject Heidi Bub goes searching for her roots, but is unprepared for the cultural differences between her middle-class suburban southern neighborhood and impoverished rural Asia. As her biological family makes increasing demands on her for money, Bub finds her attitude shifting to be more reflective of U.S. policy toward Vietnam: concerned, but short of the point of real sacrifice.