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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns previews Vietnam series at Air Force Academy

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - August 25, 2017 - Updated: August 24, 2017

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Ken BurnsAcclaimed documentary director Ken Burns talks about his 10-part series on Vietnam Thursday night at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (Photo by courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Academy)

Filmmaker Ken Burns thinks his new 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War could spark a public discussion of the issues dividing Americans in 2017.

Burns, who gave Air Force Academy cadets a sneak-peek at the documentary Thursday night, pointed to how his 1990 documentary “The Civil War” drove a discussion ahead of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The Vietnam series, he said, shows combat through the eyes of troops on both sides and also examines how 10 years of combat there drove a wedge into the U.S. populace, sparking widespread unrest.

“That era sewed some seeds of disunion,” Burns said.

Burns’ latest effort, co-directed with Lynn Novick, is set to debut on public television Sept. 17. He said it compiles a decade of work and dozens of interviews into 10 episodes that begin profiling Southeast Asia at the time of French colonialism in the 1850s.

The characters who help Burns illustrate the war include retired Air Force Gen. Tony McPeak, who flew 285 missions over Southeast Asia during the war. McPeak later served as the Air Force’s top general and said the lessons of Vietnam greatly influenced what the service has become.

“There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Vietnam,” McPeak said.

McPeak also served as a technical adviser on the Burns project, helping trim hundreds of hours of video into an 18-hour series.

“It was tough to cut down,” Burns said.

Burns said he has mixed feelings ahead of the documentary’s public release.

“It’s like a kid, you’re never done with it,” he said. And letting it out is like sending it off to college.”

McPeak, who served as a forward-air-controller in Vietnam, said the Burns work is something that Americans will use to assess the war for generations.

“This is going to become the standard history of Vietnam,” he said.

With 10 episodes, Vietnam is Burns’ most ambitious project in a 40-year career that includes Emmy-winning series including “Baseball” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

It relies on similar methods of other Burns’ work, including sharp narrative from many characters and driving music that pulls viewers through the episodes.

The Vietnam episodes also include interviews with the troops who opposed the U.S. and political figures in the communist nation who are beginning to question how North Vietnamese leaders conducted the war.

“You have to look at all sides,” Burns said.

Burns’ decision to show off his work at the Air Force Academy is no surprise. The filmmaker also visited the Colorado Springs school in 2007 to show cadets excerpts from his documentary series “The War,” which examined America in World War II.

“It’s a way of honoring their commitment,” Burns said of visiting the cadets.

Burns also hopes his film helps American families talk about the wounds that America still suffers from the Vietnam War.

The history he’s put before television audiences often addresses the present as much as it does the past, he said, pointing to his most acclaimed work, “The Civil War.”

Just look at protests in Charlottesville, Va., this month, he said.

“As the events of last week showed, the Civil War isn’t over,” he said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette