Tag Archives: Ken Burns

No on-air historians deployed in ‘The Vietnam War’

I’ve been enjoying the new Ken Burns series, especially the riveting firsthand accounts from Vietnam veterans on both sides.  But the absence of on-air commentary from historians has been an unpleasant surprise.  I’m not trying to imply that historians had no input in the series; I’m sure Burns has done his homework and consulted with a lot of knowledgeable people.  I’m talking about the way the series conveys information, not the quality of the content.

When a documentary uses historians as talking heads, it puts a human face on the discipline.  And by that, I don’t mean that it introduces audiences to individual scholars.  I mean that viewers can see how historical knowledge is something constructed by real live people.  It isn’t an assemblage of facts that descends from on high; instead, it’s a conversation among many voices working together, and sometimes arguing with one another.

When you watch The Civil War, for example, it’s clear that Barbara Fields, Ed Bearss, and Shelby Foote are asking different sorts of questions and approaching the same subject from distinct perspectives.  In the Vietnam series, by contrast, the eyewitness insights of participants are embedded within a single, overarching story told from the perspective of a seemingly omniscient narrator.

You might argue that a documentary about a war that’s still a living memory doesn’t need historians’ commentary as much as a series about the nineteenth century.  But I think historians’ voices are all the more necessary when you’re covering a subject as raw as the Vietnam War.

H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Huế (National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

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As if millions of violins suddenly played “Ashokan Farewell,” and were suddenly silenced

This would’ve been a lot funnier if they’d used black-and-white images and a Shelby Foote impersonator, but it’s still worth a chuckle.

FWIW, I saw The Force Awakens yesterday, and thought it was pretty good.  Not mind-blowing, not great, not very good…but pretty good.  The story structure’s off-kilter; it’s like a three-act film with the third act lopped off, which gives the whole thing a truncated and incomplete feeling.  And I don’t think they invested enough in the new characters’ arcs, except for Rey.  But it was an entertaining movie, and definitely an improvement on the abysmal Attack of the Clones.

This might sound odd coming from a history aficionado, but I would’ve enjoyed the prequels a lot more if Lucas had displayed less historical sensibility in making them.  The original trilogy works because it draws on basic, elemental, universal notions of storytelling: destiny, love, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.  The prequels, by contrast, involve disputes over trade routes, backroom parliamentary maneuvers, decaying institutions, and debates over political precedent and the dangers of centralized power.  That’s the stuff of good history, but it’s not necessarily the stuff of great myths, not without careful attention to the human element.

Of course, historians are trained to ignore the human element and the universal in their writing.  That’s not a bad thing, not at all.  It’s fundamental to what distinguishes history from other forms of engaging the past.  History is fundamentally about inquiry and explanation, not storytelling.  We shouldn’t abandon empirical research and sophisticated interpretation for emotion and narrative.  But it does help explain why so many people would rather learn about the past from folks like Ken Burns and Shelby Foote, who know a thing or two about drama, the human element, and telling a good story.

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