One of the limitations of the documentary certainly is the time that has passed. Many people who would have had eyewitness insight into events are long dead. If you assume Stanley Karnow took the same amount of time to make his doc that Ken Burns said he did (10 years) then he started making it in 1972. That’s only 18 years (!!) after Dien Bien Phu. Heck, the war wasn’t even over. Karnow probably didn’t start then, but he does have tons of great interviews with high level officials from the time on both sides, including Pham Van Dong. It makes for a very, very different feel. Unfortunately, in 1982, no one was really able to discuss the war this straightforwardly, so the proximity in time was both a help and a hindrance. Just like the lack of proximity in time is now both a help and a hindrance.
I feel that in some way, this doc is for the 18-20-year-old kids of the time to finally talk in a way that lets them be heard. McNamara is dead. Westy is dead. All the top-level guys who would have hogged the spotlight had they still been alive are gone, so the privates and lance corporals get the spotlight instead. And the distance from the war means the public reception for their stories will be different, and hopefully more accepting.
This is why I don’t mind people like Neil Sheehan giving me the “conventional wisdom” about the Diem regime. This is his chance to speak on camera about something he had a big part in. It’s ok that it’s something I have already heard: much of the footage, include Madame Nhieu footage, is stuff I’ve already seen in multiple places. (The surviving Dien Bien Phu footage must be sparse because I keep seeing the same stuff over and over.) But many, many people have not, and putting all this stuff in one place, with the voices of those who maybe couldn’t speak in this way until now, seems important.
I don’t think the series doesn’t have flaws, and I agree with a lot of the stuff being posted here - great discussion really. My contribution for today would be I’m starting to wonder if Burns was too selective in his interviewees. I am seeing the same ones over and over. There is a balance to be struck between getting a diversity of views, and building sympathy for or rapport between an interviewee and the audience, which takes repeated exposure. I’m wondering if Ken Burns didn’t learn the wrong lesson from The Civil War and Shelby Foote, in which you could never get enough of Shelby Foote on camera because OMG Shelby Foote! But that doesn’t necessarily translate here because, sadly, there was only one Shelby Foote. We’ll see what happens here. There will be a Merrill McPeak episode and when I saw him talk, he seemed like kind of a character.