All eyes were riveted on the monitors in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton as clips from “The Vietnam War” unspooled. It was part of the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour and clearly, the public broadcaster’s pièce de résistance of its upcoming fall schedule.
From acclaimed documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who previously collaborated on “The War,” “Baseball” and “Prohibition,” “The Vietnam War” (premiering Sept. 17) spans 18 hours over 10 episodes telling the epic story from Vietnam’s declaration of independence in 1945 to the fall of Saigon 30 years later.
About 80 people are interviewed in the sprawling documentary, including many Americans who fought in the war, those who opposed it as well as Vietnamese soldiers and civilians from both North and South Vietnam.
“We didn’t find any group that was reticent, said Novick, who took part in a panel discussion with Burns, retired Air Force General Merrill McPeak and Mai Elliott, author of “The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family.”
“We found generally enormous interest in having their story told,” Novick said. “Sometimes it was very painful, but it was a chance to share it though with the wider world. We looked at it from the bottom up, ordinary people who lived it, on every possible side. There was also a tremendous amount of new scholarship we availed ourselves of — and the passage of time. We decided in 2006 to take it on as it receded in history. One of the many revelations is there was never a time our government thought the war was winnable. The drumbeat of doubt goes back to the earliest days, even as the war was escalating. There was never a time we had the winning formula.”
The protracted conflict between the communist government of North Vietnam — which wanted the country unified under communist rule — against the government of South Vietnam and its ally, the United States, had a huge human toll. Some 3.1 million Vietnamese troops and civilians were killed and 57,939 members of U.S. armed forces died or were considered missing as a result of the war when their names were inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C in 1982. Thousands upon thousands of others suffered lasting physical and psychological scars.
American society was deeply riven by the war, which many opposed on moral grounds or because they felt it lacked clearly definable goals. The first organized protests against it took place in 1963 and continued unabated throughout the rest of the conflict.
“We try super-hard not to promote an agenda,” Burns said. “It’s enough to wrestle the story to the ground, as it is a story rarely told from more than one perspective. There isn’t a single truth in war. We know how important it is, no matter what personal baggage there is, to shed it and fill it in with a more dense and complicated story.”
The filmmakers decided not to interview on camera well-known combatants including Sen. John McCain and John Kerry, whose stories have been told many times over the decades — and in the telling, have created their own political controversies. Instead, they spoke with Kerry, McCain and other well-known figures of the era including Jane Fonda and Henry Kissinger off camera as part of their extensive research.
Burns has previously produced epic documentaries on the Civil War and World War II. “The throughline is the essential horror and cruelty of war,” he said. “But people rose up against the war and elected representatives followed their wishes. For all the pandemonium, death and loss, there was a point at which in some weird way the system worked — although as one interviewee said, it drove a stake through the heart of America.”
“The documentary doesn’t take a view that glorifies or denigrates the military. It’s very even-handed. We hope it provides a platform for a dialog,” said Gen. McPeak. “You’ll see what was wrong with our intervention. It was a losing cause from the beginning. We put 58,000 names on the wall for no reason.”
In addition to the 360° immersive perspective the documentary promises to provide, also of note is the music. In addition to a score by Yo-Yo Ma, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, 120 Vietnam War-era songs are used from the likes of iconic artists including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Jimi Hendrix, whose estate granted rare approval for usage.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, was on hand to present American Experience’s “Into the Amazon,” in which he retraced T.R.’s perilous 1914 journey with legendary Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon to chart an unexplored river in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, then called the River of Doubt and now known as Rio Roosevelt.
“I’d thought in an abstract way of going on the expedition, but I’m not an explorer type,” Roosevelt said of his initial hesitation to retrace the original voyage of more than a century ago, which claimed the lives of three men of the 19 involved, and nearly killed the president, who completed two terms of office in 1909. “It struck me how much the same it was, and how hard it must’ve been for them. The trip made me respect what it took to survive.”
PBS also presented three shows dealing with space exploration. “The Farthest-Voyager in Space” marks the 40th anniversary of NASA’s first Voyager spacecraft, which revolutionized scientific knowledge of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their various moons and rings.
Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco was asked about how the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 crafts, built in the 1970s, would be different today.
“There is much more miniaturization now. Voyager used a tape deck, literally an 8-track cassette. Now we have solid state devices in our laptops. It’s working well, though, and that’s why we’re here,” she said about the spacecrafts’ design. Voyager 1 left our solar system in 2012 and ushered humanity into the interstellar age. Voyager 2 is headed for the “heliosheath,” the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar medium before it also reaches interstellar space. Both spacecraft are still sending scientific information about their surroundings.
“Beyond a Year in Space” chronicles astronaut Scott Kelly’s return to Earth from the International Space Station. It’s a continuation of a previous film focusing on his experiences, “A Year in Space.” The new installment also introduces viewers to the next generation of astronauts training to travel into deep space.
Kelly said he would consider going into space again and that his voyages gave him a new perspective of life on Earth.
“I have a new appreciation of our atmosphere, greater awareness of pollution and weird storm systems,” said Kelly, who piloted the space shuttle Discovery mission in 1999 and completed three tours on the space station. “You see human presence from space. When you hear the news it’s mostly bad, but when you look at Earth, it’s mostly beautiful and peaceful. You’d pass over the Mediterranean and on the news we saw bodies of refugees there. It gives you a sense of empathy for the people of Earth.”
Kelly said that 45 minutes of every hour allow for television signals to reach the space station, so the crew is always up on the latest news — and entertainment. He said he saved up episodes of “Game of Thrones” to watch in his free time — and said they were so good that he viewed them twice.
Nova’s “Black Hole Apocalypse” examines new scientific research on black holes, revealing new clues to the strangest and most extreme objects in the universe.
“We see black holes indirectly through the havoc they wreak on the environment,” said theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin in discussing the show with other astrophysicists, who all happened to be women. “We are technically falling into super black holes — everything will fall into black holes and the universe will cease to exist.”
A wild, winged guest named Stella took center stage for the panel on “H is for Hawk: A New Chapter,” based on Helen Macdonald’s international best-selling book in which she overcame grief at the passing of her father by caring for and training a goshawk named Mabel.
“The real education is how to be a good person. When I was with a hawk, I felt very calm. I wanted to be like them — solitary and fierce,” said Macdonald.
“Anne of Green Gables — The Good Stars,” premiering Thanksgiving night, follows a 13-year-old Anne Shirley (played by Ella Ballentine) as she faces new challenges including dealing with rivalries among her friends. It’s the second installment of the TV movie, which co-stars Martin Sheen.
“This young lady has had a profound effect on all of us. She’s an extraordinary young woman and an amazing talent,” Sheen said of Ballentine. “It’s one of the easiest and most relaxing experiences I’ve ever had. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment [shooting this] in one of my favorite places, Ontario, Canada.”
PBS Kids showcased “The Ruff Ruffman Show,” an animated digital series that includes videos and games aimed at exploring science concepts for children ages 4 to 8. As it has since the debut of the Ruffman family in 2005, it features actor and writer Jim Conroy as the voice of Ruff.
As is its tradition, PBS capped off its two days of presentations with a live performance, a preview from the upcoming “Live from Lincoln Center.” Tony Award nominee Jonathan Groff performed numbers from Broadway shows including “Hamilton” and “Spring Awakening.” Groff will appear in “Live from Lincoln Center” with two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster as part of a group of four shows featuring some of Broadway’s most talented stars.