Ken Burns' Vietnam Series Ann Arbor preview

Burns bringing Vietnam to Ann Arbor


Ken Burns spends his professional life immersed in the past, which gives him an acute perspective on America's fractured present. His latest project, a ten-part, 18-hour documentary series for PBS called “The Vietnam War,” just might be a step toward the cure for what ails us.

“We want to be together. We don't like the way we are now,” says the award-winning filmmaker, talking about the current binary nature of America - a coun-
try split into yes/no, red states/blue states, pro-Trump/ anti-Trump, Republicans/ Democrats with precious little middle ground.

“And I believe the way we are now had its beginnings in Vietnam. If we can unpack Vietnam, we may be able to unpack the kind of divisions we have now.”

Burns is returning to his Ann Arbor hometown Wednesday for a special preview of his latest epic documentary. The event will take place at the Michigan Theater and is presented by Detroit Public Television and the Cinetopia Film Festival.

During “Ken Burns: A PBS Preview Event,” the man who's chronicled everything from the Civil War to jazz to Jackie Robinson will show about an hour's worth of excerpts from the Vietnam series. He'll also discuss his six-year journey in making what's bound to be a landmark series and his career as America's most beloved documentary filmmaker.

“The Vietnam War,” directed by Burns and Lynn Novick, will have another local showcase in a couple of months. An excerpt will be premiered at the Cinetopia Festival on June 9 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The documentary will debut on PBS in the fall.

Burns has won multiple Emmys, received two Oscar nominations and been honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for making some of the most influential and most-watched historical documentaries ever. “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source,” said the late historian Stephen Ambrose.

Speaking by phone, Burns says his earliest memories of the Vietnam conflict are tied to growing up in southeast Michigan. “I was an 11-yearold living in Ann Arbor when the first teach-in happened about the war in March of 1965.”

It was a painful time personally for Burns. who says his mother was then weeks away from dying. And it was a period of difficult political and cultural shifts that would split American opinion about a devastating war.

In a preview trailer for “The Vietnam War,” the first words spoken by an interview subject are, “I think the Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America...We never recovered.”

Burns promises a look at the divisive war that is “more complex, nuanced” and will cover it comprehensively instead of taking sides.

“I make films for everybody. I am an umpire calling balls and strikes,” he stresses. “We permit, in this film, you to get to know a hundred people, from presidents to so-called ordinary foot soldiers, marines, army guys, helicopter pilots, nurses, gold star mothers, protesters, deserters, but also South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers and diplomats and North Vietnamese civilians and soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas. You get to see the war from every particular angle.”

The documentary also will shed new light on some assumptions that are still taken for fact, despite new information being uncovered. “We've spent the last 45 years learning (new) things that our textbooks and our general conventional wisdom have never caught up with,” says Burns.

One of those complexities is the perception that every U.S. soldier who returned home was yelled at, spit on or otherwise publicly derided by those opposing the war.
While that sort of mistreatment happened to some soldiers, it's not the entire or only story, according to Burns. “Very early on, the anti-war movement would say, 'Bring the GIs home.' That was their banner. They wanted to save them. This is once again where the binary metastasized into this thing that permits false news. There, I said it,” says Burns, alluding to the topic of fake news that's so prevalent today.

Burns has spent a lifetime researching the big picture, which allows him to look at things like fake news in a different way. “It's as old as human beings. The first human being (who) told a lie, that was the first false news there was. ... It's a little bit more insidious now because we have so many outlets and people tend to self-select the news they get.”

He says it's much easier for people to understand that two opposing viewpoints can be valid if they're talking about something personal, like an argument within a marriage, rather than something political.

According to Burns, the divisions that plague us now stretch back to the Vietnam War. And he compares them to a virus that has grown and deepened over the years. “We hope in some ways this series can be a vaccine that might help us unpack and release the toxicity of this, or at least start conversations that realize, you know what? You're both right. And if you're both right, that puts cable news out of business,” he says.

Inevitably, Burns says, his documentaries relate to contemporary life in ways that can't always be anticipated.

“When you begin to tell the story of Vietnam, you do get into large document dumps and you do get into White Houses very upset about leaks. And even though I began this film 10 years ago with no idea what was going to happen now, it seems super- contemporary. I've just listed two of maybe a thousand things (in the documentary where) you'll go, 'Wow, that sounds like today.' ”

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or


A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick


Premieres September 2017 on PBS

About the Series:

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, THE VIETNAM WAR, tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history as it has never before been told on film. Visceral and immersive, the series explores the human dimensions of the war through revelatory testimony of nearly 80 witnesses from all sides -- Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as combatants and civilians from North and South Vietnam.

Ten years in the making, the series includes rarely seen, digitally re-mastered archival footage from sources around the globe, photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th Century, historic television broadcasts, evocative home movies, and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. THE VIETNAM WAR features more than 100 iconic musical recordings from greatest artists of the era, and haunting original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma. 

Production Credits:

THE VIETNAM WAR is a production of Florentine Films and WETA, Washington D.C.  Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  Written by Geoffrey C.  Ward.  Produced by Sarah Botstein, Lynn Novick and Ken Burns.

Funding Credits:

Funding provided by: Bank of America; Corporation for Public Broadcasting; PBS; David H. Koch; The Blavatnik Family Foundation; Park Foundation; The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations; The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; National Endowment for the Humanities; The Pew Charitable Trusts; Ford Foundation Just Films; Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and

Members of The Better Angels Society:

Jonathan & Jeannie Lavine, Hal & Diane Brierley, Abrams Foundation, John & Catherine Debs, Fullerton Family Foundation, The Montrone Family, Lynda & Stewart Resnick, The Golkin Family Foundation, The Lynch Foundation, The Roger & Rosemary Enrico, Foundation, Richard S. & Donna L. Strong Foundation, Bonnie and Tom McCloskey, Barbara K. & Cyrus B. Sweet III, The Lavender Butterfly Fund


The film will be accompanied by an unprecedented outreach and public engagement program, providing opportunities for communities to participate in a national conversation about what happened during the Vietnam War, what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned.