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The Vietnam War “Episode 6 - Things Fall Apart (January - July 1968)”
September 24, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

The helicopter. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois (top), to be exact, or “Huey.” Designed to meet the US Army’s 1952 requirement for medical evacuation, the Huey was the first turbine-powered helicopter to enter production, in 1960. Since then, some 16,000 have been built, and it would go on to play a major role in the Vietnam War.

Until now, the helicopter has played a supporting role in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal, searing documentary series The Vietnam War. With tonight’s sixth episode, “Things Fall Apart (January - July 1968),” the helicopter is about to take center-stage. If World War I was the war of the biplane and World War II the war of the single-propeller fighter plane and long-range propeller bomber, Vietnam would become the helicopter war.

And so “Things Fall Apart” opens with radio crackle on the soundtrack and blurry, black-and-white images of a fleet of helicopters flying toward the camera, in single file. “My job was to get shot at,” helicopter crew chief Ron Ferrizzi, a policeman’s son from North Philadelphia, recalls haltingly in the opening seconds of “Things Fall Apart.” “My job was to draw enemy fire. I was a duck. A decoy.

“I got shot at a lot. I engaged the enemy — a lot.”

Here’s something someone who’s never fought in a war might not know. You don’t hear the gunshots, Ferrizzi says. You just hear bullets popping by your ear.

So many documentaries overuse music — lazy music, bad music, terrible music, loud and playing relentlessly from the beginning of a film to the bitter end, non-stop. The best background music is that which you don’t even realize is there — that’s why even silence works better than bad music. One of The Vietnam War’s many grace notes is the way composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ background music plays under the surface, quietly, subtly, under the skin. Ferrizzi, still shaken by his experience all these years later, recounts flying over rice paddies and impenetrable jungle — “You flew below 500 feet. Above 500 feet was a kill zone. You’d better be below 200 feet. The lower, the better” — there’s a simple, mournful, rising and falling electronic chord. The only time I’ve ever heard music that effective in a Vietnam film before was Carmine Coppola’s eerie, under-appreciated music for Apocalypse Now. (Coppola, filmmaker Francis’ father, was a flutist, symphony conductor, and musical director; Apocalypse Now was one of the very few film scores he ever composed. Reznor and Ross are in that league.)

Helicopter crews flew some 36 million sorties during the Vietnam War. Their mission wasn’t just search-and-destroy firefights, ferrying supplies and medical evacuations. They dropped propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines and took incoming fire the whole way. The crews became so good at what they did — and the Huey proved so maneuverable in tight flying conditions — that it was said they could evacuate injured soldiers to a field hospital in under 15 minutes, anywhere in the country, at any time, under any conditions. It’s worth noting that, around the time the Vietnam War reached its peak in the early 1970s, the TV show M*A*S*H — which playwright Larry Gelbart adapted from the 1970 film by Ring Lardner, Jr. and director Robert Altman — revealed to a TV audience watching back home the crucial role played by helicopters in evacuating injured soldiers during the Korean War.

“Things Fall Apart” airs after a two-day break since the last installment of The Vietnam War, and marks the halfway point in the series. Those powerful opening moments, in which Ferrizzi shakingly admits to coming close to losing his mind and hauling off against a woman reporter at the time, have the effect of pulling the viewer straight back into the program. The year 1968 would prove to be a watershed moment in the history of the Vietnam War, and the United States, narrator Peter Coyote tells us. American leaders promised that victory was finally in sight, that there really was light at the end of the tunnel.

They were wrong.

Robert Kennedy — looking strikingly young in a moving color photo chosen by Burns and Novick — wrote an editorial that year that seemed to speak for millions, quoting the poet William Butler Yeats: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . . Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.”

Communist commanders fell for the same sense of heady optimism that gripped Washington, as Gen. William Westmoreland (left, with Pres. Johnson) said at the time in a TV interview with Look Magazine’s Warren Rogers, “I find an attitude of confidence and growing optimism. It prevails all over the country . . . constant, real progress is being made.” The North Vietnamese would launch a massive, surprise attack on the start of the lunar celebration called Tet, and it would prove catastrophic — both in the short-term and over the long-term, on both sides.

1968 would prove to be both a turbulent and pivotal year. As Burns and Novick show in “Things Fall Apart,” hints of what was to come filtered into the public consciousness, bit-by-bit, moment-by-moment.

The Vietnam War takes in a wide sweep of history, but in perhaps more than any other installment, “Things Fall Apart” resembles a slowly ticking clock: Something big is going to happen, only no one knows precisely what it is or when it’s going to happen. The tension builds, slowly, inexorably, over the 90-minute running time.

The Vietnam War is a documentary, but “Things Fall Apart” comes the closest of Vietnam’s six installments so far to feeling like one of those familiar Hollywood feature films — scenes from Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, cut against the second half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

One of the most telling moments for a TV viewer old enough to remember it at the time comes nearly halfway into “Things Fall Apart,” when a solemn, normally ebullient Johnny Carson tells his late-night audience, “As you know, this is the usual starting time for The Tonight Show. But because of the critical war situation in Vietnam, especially around Saigon, NBC for the next 15 minutes is going to bring you a special news program via satellite.”

Fake news: Early radio dispatches reported the Viet Cong had made it inside the US embassy compound itself in Saigon, and the first television footage did little to reassure the American public. Saigon was far from secure, but the embassy’s defenders would eventually hang on.

Once again, Burns and Novick’s determination to get the Vietnamese point-of-view pays huge dividends. Vietnamese veterans who recall the Tet offensive, and lived to tell about it, admit to Burns through interpreters that they were surprised by the Americans’ resistance. One ex-Viet Cong commander admits begrudging admiration for the way US Marines, fighting far from home and badly outnumbered, fended off a surprise attack at the embassy compound.

Tet would prove to be a temporary setback for North Vietnam, despite appalling losses, and a Pyrrhic victory for the US Marines who fended off the attacks, despite the odds.

“It was an entirely different fight,” Marine Corp. Bill Ehrhart recalls, midway through “Things Fall Apart.” He had graduated from high school in 1966. He was nearing the end of his tour in Vietnam, and he was frustrated that he had not seen any action. He would go on to win the Purple Heart for bravery despite serious injuries sustained while fighting in Hue City. Later, he would become a poet — “the dean of Vietnam war poetry” — and an active member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Perhaps more than any other voice in “Things Fall Apart,” that sums up the contrasts and contradictions of the war itself, and why Burns and Novick dedicated 10 years of their life to making The Vietnam War: the recent high school graduate and reluctant war hero who is awarded the Purple Heart and goes on to be a prominent member of the anti-war protest movement.

Documentary films, when they’re thoughtful and well-made, have a way of opening our eyes to things we didn’t know. It is rare, though, when a documentary manages to be both informative and profound.

As one reporter said of Hue, after the Tet offensive went to pieces, “All that was left of Hue was ruins, divided by a river.”

That's a striking image. “Things Fall Apart” is full of them.


TV Worth Watching will preview “Episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968 - May 1969)” on Monday, Sept. 25. The Vietnam War airs weeknights through Thursday, Sept. 28 on PBS at 8 p.m. ET. Check your local listings.

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