Lynn Novick on the Lessons of “The Vietnam War”


“Meet Lynn Novick,” a recent Washington Post headline suggested. The co-director of the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War — which airs its final episode tonight — Novick may not be a household name like her frequent collaborator, Ken Burns. But at an event for members of the Asia Society on Tuesday, host Tom Nagorski, the non-profit organization’s executive vice president, welcomed both Burns and Novick as figures who need no introduction.

Speaking to a rather geriatric crowd at the society’s New York headquarters on the Upper East Side, Novick — who appeared alongside Burns and two of the film’s subjects, Vietnam veteran and educator Thomas Vallely and Vietnamese author and lecturer Duong Van Mai Elliott — described the impetus to give equal treatment to the Vietnamese perspective on the war. The film’s production team didn’t want to replicate what got America into this messy, misguided war to being with: A lack of understanding or acknowledgment of the Vietnamese people. “We want to tell the human story of the war,” Novick said, both in the U.S. and Vietnam.

At 55, Novick has spent half her life making documentaries about American history. She began working with Burns in 1989, on The Civil War, the series that turned his name into a metonym for sweeping, comprehensive filmmaking about American history and culture. Burns credits Novick with ensuring that the ten-part, eighteen-hour Vietnam War would include the stories of both regular Americans and regular Vietnamese. This approach has not only produced a stunningly detailed and far-reaching film, one that has been translated into Vietnamese and made available to stream in that country. Highlighting ordinary people on both sides of the conflict also has the paradoxical effect of making the viewer see past them, to the people in government who made the succession of terrible decisions that led to the death of millions.

“I couldn’t have imagined it would be seen in Vietnam, in its entirety, in Vietnamese,” Novick remarked at a nearby café after the event — adding that the film’s producer, Sarah Botstein, oversaw the last-minute subtitling process. She described screening the film for some of the Vietnamese people who participated in it; they were fascinated in particular by the stories of ordinary Americans, like Denton “Mogie” Crocker, who eagerly enlisted before he turned 18 and was killed a day after his 19th birthday, or the anti-war activist Bill Zimmerman.

For Novick, and for many Americans who were too young to comprehend what was going on at the time, going back to this period in American history meant re-contextualizing familiar images of the war. “It was really interesting to go back to the source and kind of unlearn what Hollywood taught us,” she said. “There are many great artists who made great films. Whether they represent the history of the Vietnam War, that’s a different question.” (For the record, she hasn’t seen Tropic Thunder, although, she said, “I’ve heard it’s great.”) One thing that became increasingly — and embarrassingly — clear as she worked on the film is how few Vietnamese people are represented in Hollywood versions of the war.

Over eighteen hours, The Vietnam War brings to life iconic photographs, like the one featuring the so-called “napalm girl,” pictured running naked from the smoldering aftermath of a bombing attack on a village north of Saigon. The girl is now a 54-year-old woman, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, who eventually emigrated to Canada, as the documentary explains; she wasn’t very hard to track down, since she’s become a spokesperson for peace and conflict resolution.

(Novick was quick to credit producer Salimah El-Amin, who oversaw the photography research, when I brought up The Vietnam War’s incredible portfolio of still photographs. “That Ken Burns brand represents the work of a lot of people,” she said. “I’ve been frustrated that Sarah Botstein hasn’t gotten as much credit as she deserves. She’s hugely important. This film wouldn’t have happened without her. [Writer] Geoff [Ward] and Sarah are as important as Ken and me.”)

“It’s almost like the power of that image overtakes the reality,” Novick said. “There are so many misconceptions about that moment.” She hadn’t realized that it was the South Vietnamese forces that dropped the bomb; she’d assumed it was the Americans, and that they were targeting civilians, which was also not the case. She noted that the picture didn’t bring about the end of the war, as is often suggested. “America had basically wiped its hands of Vietnam, we were withdrawing. So that picture didn’t change the course of the war. It was an extraordinarily important image to remind people of what has been happening.” She’s watched the film many, many times, and yet when she watches the segment about that photo, “I cry every time.”

Novick recalled a particularly moving comment from Nguyen Ngoc, an 86-year-old veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, who appears in the film and was the first Vietnamese person to watch it in its entirety. At a promotional event for the documentary at the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City in August, Ngoc said, “I used to ask myself: ‘How come the United States after 40 years still can’t get over the Vietnam War?’ I considered it a weakness of the United States. Actually now, having seen this film, I believe that the way in which the United States hasn’t ever really been able to leave the Vietnam War behind is actually a great strength. It’s a nation that’s always asking itself about its own history, questioning its past.”

Directing a series as wide-reaching and ambitious as The Vietnam War means keeping your eye on the big picture. But Novick’s roving curiosity — her persistence in tracking down as many eyewitnesses to the war as possible — has turned The Vietnam War into not just a film, but a reconciliation attempt. Her next project, her first solo directing effort, is a documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative and the incarcerated men and women earning a college education behind bars; it’s slated to air on PBS next year.

During the event at the Asia Society, Novick smiled knowingly and affectionately when Elliott or Vallely spoke; when Elliott talked about seeing her estranged sister for the first time in 40 years, she shook her head in disbelief. When video clips were shown, she leaned over to watch. “I want to see what people are reacting to,” she said later. “There was a woman who looked like she was maybe Vietnamese-American, and she was definitely tearing up. I was trying to imagine where she was from and what was going on with her. You kind of wonder, what’s her story?”