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The 50 best TV shows of 2017: No 9 The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War.
A model of journalistic objectivity … The Vietnam War. Photograph: BBC

If television were a war, drama would be the current superpower, with reality and talent shows providing supporting firepower. Helpless against this advance, the forces of documentary huddle on a last thin strip of unsurrendered territory, starved of funding and troops, with the British fort defended by a 91-year-old general, David Attenborough.

Given this battlefield, it is heartening that this year should have seen one of the highest achievements of factual programme-making – although chastening to UK viewers that it came not from our own huge public service infrastructures, but America’s PBS.

With The Vietnam War, producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reached the summit of a remarkable project about America’s three defining military conflicts, following The War (2007), which told the story of 1939-45, and Burns’ The Civil War (1990).

Historical documentary has three essential elements – speakers, archive and stance – which Burns and Novick executed perfectly. They interviewed 100 living witnesses (from, crucially, both sides of the conflict), and their researchers found vivid video and stills spanning the White House (President Nixon’s reception for returned POWs) to a local TV station that invited families to record Christmas messages for troops in Vietnam. The latter footage illustrated the story of Denton W Crocker Jr, an eager American patriot killed in 1966, a fable of futile sacrifice that lies like a landmine under episodes three and four.

And, although there have been twitterings of dispute from some interested parties, impartial viewers would surely struggle to find a greater model of journalistic objectivity. The US involvement in Vietnam has often been regarded as an inexplicable folly, but Burns and Novick methodically show how it arose from American anti-communism and military-imperial arrogance, and the crossing of the bloodline beyond which it seems that losses can only be justified by risking even more.

‘The summit of a remarkable project’ … The Vietnam War.
‘The summit of a remarkable project’ … The Vietnam War. Photograph: BBC

Testimony to the directors’ thoroughness is that, while America’s direct involvement in Vietnam lasted from 1965-75, the series spans over a century and a half: from 1858, when French colonialism seeded poisons in the region, to today, when the lessons of the misadventure remain contested in US culture. While the whole series should be required viewing for any president or prime minister tempted by a foreign conquest, the final episode, The Weight of Memory, is an especially important lesson about consequence.

The BBC should be given credit for bringing this masterpiece to a British network audience, although it deserves censure for relegating it to the niche BBC Four rather than placing it in peak-time on Two, or even One. Broadcasters in the UK should also reflect hard on whether the industry here could ever now provide the production time and money necessary to make a historical series as magisterial as this.

An editorial scruple of Burns and Novick is that interviewees are captioned with the position they held during the period they are speaking about. This means that Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes and Bảo Ninh are identified in early episodes only as fighters on either side, and Neil Sheehan as a journalist. Only later are they credited with four of the greatest books on Vietnam: respectively the novels The Things They Carried, Matterhorn, The Sorrow of War, and A Bright Shining Lie.

Those books would stand on the prime shelf in any library of Vietnam history, but The Vietnam War must grace alone the video section. By modern convention, the series is categorised online as “season one” but, in the histories of Vietnam and TV, it is hard to see how this could be followed.

(Watch here)

This article titled "The 50 best TV shows of 2017: No 9 The Vietnam War" was written by Mark Lawson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7 December 2017 06.00am

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