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Ken Burns' 'Vietnam', Congressional Funding, Main PBS Subjects at TCA
July 30, 2017  | By Ed Bark

Beverly Hills, CA -- For the past decade, Ken Burns and his producing partner, Lynn Novick, clung as best they could to what he calls "this bucking bronco."

They began work on The Vietnam War before Barack Obama announced he'd challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. And now, at last, this 18-hour, 10-part lightning rod is almost ready for its rollout. From Sept. 17-21 and then resuming from Sept. 24-28, what may prove to be Burns' masterwork will dominate PBS as few programs ever have. And because it's primarily his most recent history ever, many viewers are sure to take it very personally.  

Burns' previous combat epics, The Civil War and The War (WWII), were in large part "shrouded in nostalgia," with no survivors from the former and a dwindling few from the latter, he said Sunday on the first day of PBS' portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. "We had to just swim upstream and cut through all that stuff, the barnacles of sentimentality."

But with Vietnam, there's nothing approaching a feel-good vibe for what those earlier wars ended up accomplishing. The misguided effort to save Southeast Asia from the clutches of communism is an easily reopened wound for many.

"I don't know of a project that's affected us quite the same way," Burns said, underscoring the imperative to "get this right" while also recounting those times from a variety of perspectives.

Burns, Novick, retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak and Vietnamese author Mai Elliott joined TV critics at lunch (but of course) for an extended session on "Vietnam War." The Ken Burns lunch is a long running staple out here. This time, though, he didn't offer an opening preamble. The Q&A kicked in immediately.

TVWorthWatching took its turn in the ring by noting an evocative quote from surviving North Vietnamese Army foot soldier Bao Ninh. It immediately leads in to the film's opening chapter, with Ninh asserting that "only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost."

Burns said it was "important to us to show that the winning and losing is one of the least important aspects of this struggle" and that Ninh's quote was a vehicle to "throw us into the rest of the film."

But he knew fully well what was coming from McPeak, who is interviewed for the film and firmly endorses it, but takes extreme exception to Dinh's view. As chief of the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing in Vietnam from 1969-70, he flew 269 combat missions and won the prestigious Silver Star.

"What this gent (Ninh)" said are the words of a "determined amateur," McPeak contended, even if he quickly determined after arriving in Vietnam that it was destined to be a "losing effort."

"I began to think that I need to get everybody back home as a high priority," McPeak said. "I did. I didn't lose anybody under my command . . . So that was for me a small victory -- and a very important one."

"I'm a poor loser," he added. "I'm not sure I'll ever go back to Vietnam. I won't be a personal part of it because I care deeply that we lost . . . By the way, we won every battle. We never lost a military engagement in Vietnam. We just lost the war."

McPeak has seen the entire Vietnam film and unreservedly calls it "a work of art. It'll be around for a long time." Elliott sees it as "a big learning experience" for all generations, "emotional and wrenching but also very educational."

A suitably weighty companion book, both figuratively and literally, will be published on Sept. 5. A soft-cover galley distributed at the lunch is 640 pages. In their introduction, Burns and Novick write in part, "What is most important now is to find some meaning, some lessons in the war for our lives. There is no single truth in war, as this difficult story reminded us at every turn."

Or as Novick noted at lunch, "We can't tie it up in a bow. There's no happy ending."


Earlier Sunday, veteran PBS president & CEO Paula Kerger, who's been in that position since 2006, again found herself addressing the threatened demise of funding for public broadcasting.

"This is a dynamic situation, and the outcome is uncertain," Kerger said, even though the House appropriations committee recently authorized the existing level of funding -- $450 million for public TV and radio and $27 million in "Ready to Learn" money that goes to children's programming.

But the Senate must still act and "I take it very seriously," Kerger said, even if she's often reminded somewhat cavalierly that "you've been through this battle before" and won it.

"If the federal funding goes away," PBS itself won't vanish, "but a number of our stations will," she cautioned.

Kerger also pointed to a recent study by a "Democratic/Republican firm" in which 75 percent of respondents said they support taxpayer dollars going to PBS. They include Tea Party advocates and supporters of President Trump, she said.

There's this, too. Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act that established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and soon after, PBS and NPR.

It would be "so ironic if this is the year it all ends," Kerger said.
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