Thursday, April 6, 2017

Documentary Review: 'Vietnam: A Television History' (American Experience Edition)

(C) 1983, 2004 WGBH Boston

The Series

On Tuesday, October 4, 1983, PBS stations across the U.S. aired Roots of a War (1945-1953), the first of 13 parts of Vietnam: A Television History. Co-produced by WGBH, Boston's PBS station, with Britain's Central Independent Television/UK and France's Antenne-2 in association with  LRE Productions, this documentary miniseries was an in-depth look at America's "lost crusade" in Vietnam, starting with France's failed attempt to reassert its colonial authority after World War II and ending with America's withdrawal from Southeast Asia and the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon, South Vietnam's capital.

The series - as the New York Times' reviewer wrote in 1983 - was "a landmark of television journalism" because it attempted to "tell us what things were, not what we might have liked them to be." The conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal called it "an extraordinary film record," while Newsweek said that Vietnam: A Television History "brings the war to life in the experience of men who fought it....most riveting and powerful." 

Vietnam: A Television History was conceived by journalist Stanley Karnow, who had covered events in Indochina since 1959, and television producer Richard Ellison in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon. After six years of culling through archival footage and interviewing participants in France, Vietnam, and the U.S., Ellison and his team of writers, producers, and editors put the finishing touches on the 13-part, 780-minute-long series that focuses primarily on the American part of the war in Indochina, covering a span of 20 years (1955-1975). 

Narrated by actor Will Lyman and featuring archival footage and contemporary interviews with Henry Kissinger, Dean Rusk, William Westmoreland, Van Dong Pham, Cao Ky Nguyen, and other participants, the series covers more than just the military aspects of the war. Vietnam: A Television History delves into the complex web of historical events (including World War II and the Cold War), social upheaval (the decline of Western colonization and the rise of America's anti-war movement), and the interplay between personalities (Ho Chi Minh versus various French and American Presidents) that shaped the tragedy that was Vietnam. 

The series was one of PBS' most successful documentaries in its history and earned two awards: the 1983 George A. Peabody Award ("This 13-part series is the definitive visual record of the war in Vietnam. It is marked by unmatched archival research, extended interviews with political and military leaders, and uncompromising commitment to objectivity.") and the Organization of American Historians' 1984 Erik Barnouw Award.

By the same token, Vietnam: A Television History was also one of PBS' most controversial programs. Conservatives noticed that the series "makes Ho Chi Minh into a nationalist rather than a Communist; it ignores the role of the South Vietnamese Army; it minimizes the brutal treatment of American prisoners of war; it slights the actual conduct of military operations." These observations, which can't be explained away without being intellectually dishonest, gave ammunition to Republicans in Congress who then went on to cut PBS' funding to curb what they (wrongly) saw as a heavily liberal bias in the public broadcasting network. 

14 years later, PBS rebroadcast Vietnam: A Television History as part of its The American Experience collection of documentaries. Curiously, the network and the show's producers re-edited the miniseries for the 1997 broadcast. Two episodes - "The First Vietnam War" and "Legacies" - were deleted and some of their narrative folded into other episodes. Allegedly, this was done to take out outdated information and to make the narrative easier for viewers to follow. 

And, not unexpectedly, this caused fans of the original 13-part version to accuse the producers and PBS of caving in to hard-line conservatives and censoring Vietnam: A Television History for political reasons. PBS denies this, but no one involved with the 1997 rebroadcast has never addressed the reasons for the re-edit, at least not to the satisfaction of fans of the 780-minute version. 

The DVD Collection

Vietnam: A Television History was released on DVD in 2004 in a four-disc box set. It presents the series in its 1997 American Experience version, which is two hours shorter than 1983's original broadcast edition. 

A six-year project from concept to completion, this 11-hour DVD collection carefully analyzes the costs and consequences of this controversial but intriguing war. From the first episode to the last, it provides a detailed visual and oral account of the war that changed a generation and continues to color American thinking on many military and foreign policy issues. - from the package blurb

 Vietnam: A Television History consists of the following episodes:

  1. Roots of a War (1945-1953)
  2. America's Mandarin (1954-1966)
  3. LBJ Goes to War (1964-1965)
  4. America Takes Charge (1965-1967)
  5. America's Enemy (1954-1967)
  6. Tet 1968
  7. Vietnamizing the War (1968-1973)
  8. Cambodia and Laos 
  9. Peace is at Hand (1968-1973)
  10. Homefront USA
  11. The End of the Tunnel (1973-1975)
The series is narrated by Will Lyman, an underrated but prolific actor whose calm, measured voice makes him a natural voice-over performer. He has been seen in movies such as Mystic River and The Siege, but he seems to have made a second career of narrating documentaries on PBS and elsewhere. His speaking style is matter-of-fact, cool, and logical. 

Also worth noting is the eerie music by Bill Kreutzman (who also performed some of the music in Apocalypse Now) and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart. Their theme for Vietnam: A Television History is a haunting bamboo-infused melody that is played in counterpoint to that other iconic sound of the Vietnam War: the wop-wop-wop noise made by a helicopter's rotors. 

The narrative, which on the surface covers a 30-year span of time, weaves back and forth along a chronology that extends as far back as the beginning of the French colonial period in the mid-19th Century. As a result, the series' structure tends to be topical instead of being strictly chronological in nature. For instance,  Episode 5, America's Enemy, examines Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam's role in the war from Diem Bien Phu to the high-water mark of President Johnson's involvement in the undeclared conflict, even though it means that viewers have to revisit some of the ground covered in Episode 1. (Of course, the material is different because the focus is on America's antagonists. But some viewers may find this storytelling technique a bit confusing.)

Though the documentary discusses the diplomatic and home front aspects of the Vietnam War, there is a great deal of combat footage, some of it very graphic in nature. As a result, some of the material in Vietnam: A Television History may not be appropriate for kids and young teens. 

Obviously, 11 (or even 13) hours are not enough for a conflict as complex and controversial as the Vietnam War to be covered completely. Some of the famous battles (Ia Drang, Khe Sahn) are mentioned almost in passing, and many events, such as the American campaigns carried out in 1966, are omitted altogether. This will disappoint military documentary buffs, but it's a natural effect of the limitations of the medium. Even the longer 26-part documentary about World War II, The World at War, couldn't cover the entirety of its subject - and it had twice the air time allotted to Vietnam: A Television History. 

Taking this into account, I can't say that I'm disappointed with the content of this four-disc set. I only watched the 1983 version of Vietnam: A Television History once - during its original airing - and don't really remember it well. As a result, the edits made to the series in 1997 don't bother me at all. 

However, other viewers who either have longer memories or owned the VHS editions with the 780-minute cut are bothered by the American Experience version. In the Amazon product page for Vietnam: A Television History, one reviewer who opted to buy the VHS version writes:

Thanks to the reviews and notes at Amazon, I was able to purchase the entire series as originally broadcast in 1983 (and with the attributions I remember from that time). I really liked the 1983 and 1984 broadcasts, but when I saw it again on TV in 1997, I noticed the cut version. As I haven't seen the DVD (aka "cut") version, I found out that they combined the first episodes (up to 1954) and chopped off the "Legacies" portion, so (I presume) the DVD ends in 1975. The "Legacies" portion was up to 1983, but I feel this portion showed how raw the Vietnam War was at that time. I like the original because it covered the entire spectrum (pre-, during, and post-war) and in good sections per phase. 

I tend to be a pragmatist about revised versions of movies and documentaries. I think it would have been nice if PBS had released the original 780-minute long edition of Vietnam: A Television History. I am reasonably sure that WGBH Boston has the original footage in its archives. If that's the case, it should not be impossible for PBS to reissue the 1983 cut when the Blu-ray edition is produced and released. 

But if the network has decided to treat the 660-minute version as the definitive version, I'm not going to complain or suggest a boycott of this edition. Vietnam: A Television History is well-written and tells the story of a long and painful war in an even-handed and analytical way. It's a must-see historical account about the limits of American military and foreign policy - and the dangers of intervening in other nations' civil wars. 

DVD Specifications

  • Codec: MPEG-2
  • Encoding format: 4:3
  • Resolution: 480i (NTSC)
  • 2.0 Stereo

  • None

  • DVD
  • Four-disc set (4 DVDs)

  • Region 1

Studio: WGBH Boston Video

Running Time: 660 minutes