Blu-ray Review: The Vietnam War – A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017)

In Blu-Ray’s by Rebecca WrightLeave a Comment

Ten years in the making, ten segments, and eighteen hours long, Ken Burns (Jackie Robinson, The War) and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War looks back at the conflict from the beginning, and its consequences—political, social, cultural, and psychological–that are still being felt today. I watched the entire series over four days, in what was a fascinating but emotionally taxing experience.

Visceral and immersive, the series includes digitally remastered archival footage from around the world, and photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th century. The Vietnam War was the first and last American conflict to be filmed by news organizations with nominal governmental interference, and the filmmakers have drawn from network footage, films, private home movies, and more.

Over the years, Ken Burns has become known for his use of first-person accounts, and he does so here to great effect. While widely known figures such as John McCain, John Kerry, and Henry Kissinger appear only in archive footage, the 79 interviewees are composed of people generally not known to the public, all off them offering their wartime experiences. The list includes members of the U.S. armed forces (including P.O.W.’s), a Gold Star mother, former diplomats, an army deserter who fled to Canada, an anti-war protester, several journalists who covered the war, and various South Vietnamese veterans and civilians. Initially jarring, is the inclusion of several former enemy combatants: Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army regulars, many in their old uniforms.

As one might expect, the soundtrack includes several classic songs of the era, plus new music by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—whose aggressive sounding theme underscores the chaos of war. Truthfully though, much of the time I found myself so engrossed in the incredible footage, I barely heard the music.

A graphic, highly emotional viewing experience, The Vietnam War effectively  lays the out political machinations of the war with the personal stories of the men who fought and died, carrying out those maneuvers. It’s a difficult watch, but an impressive documentary about one of the most controversial events in American history.

Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the 1080i transfer offers up a variety of different types of video footage that comes across as well as it can. Current interviews shot in HD, are melded well with archive footage, and photographs. New interview subjects are nicely defined, offering fine facial features, adding to the power of emotional moments. Older footage looks appropriate, and filmic. Color looks solid throughout, and skin tones appear natural. Delineation is fine. Some mild banding is present, but it doesn’t affect the overall viewing experience.

The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix handles the material very well. Surrounds aren’t necessarily booming, but effective, filling the room with the sounds of combat and music. Interviewees sound clean and clear, even when their voices soften relaying difficult moments. Music, be it a one of the sixties pop hits, or the newer material from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is strong and full. In general, this is the kind of precise, respectful sound mix a documentary like The Vietnam War requires.

English SDH, and Spanish SDH are available.

The following extras are included:

Disc 1

  • Making Of (HD, 39:47) A solid overview of the production, featuring interviews with directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They discuss the creation of the chapters, interviews, research, scoring, editing, and test screenings. As always, Burns is excited, and genuine about his work.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD) include “The March Down the Ho Chi Min Trail” (2:28), “An American Woman in a War Zone” (2:49), “Delivering Bad News” (4:36), “Hero Pilot of North Vietnam” (5:11), “Tigers, Elephants, and Helicopters” (3:12), and “For No Reason At All” (3:32).

Disc 10

  • Deleted Scenes (HD) include “Fellow Warriors: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan” (20:35), “A Vietnam War Deserter in a West Point Classroom” (6:53), “Facing the Draft Board” (3:32), “Behind the Lines at Long Binh” (5:03), and “Captured Spy and an American Interrogator” (11:06).
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