THE PAST LITERALLY DRAPES Ken Burns’s life in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire. Antique quilts hang on every available wall of the classic post-and-beam guesthouse he helped design a few years ago, just across the driveway from the modest house he’s lived in for more than 35 years. As the documentary filmmaker strolls through the guesthouse, he proudly points out his collections of old American flags and Shaker furniture.
But it’s the patchwork patterns of his prized quilts that provide the most conspicuous metaphor for how he sees America’s history — and its complicated present, too. Burns likes to quote a line by the late historian Arthur Schlesinger about the United States motto E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one.” As the American experiment continues to unfold, we’ve come to have too much pluribus, Schlesinger lamented, and not enough unum. “We spend way too much time deciding how different we are,” says Burns, whose latest project, The Vietnam War, deals with one of the most divisive eras in the country’s history. “I’ve been about unum my entire life.”
In more than three decades of filmmaking for public broadcasting, Burns has become the country’s preeminent popular historian by focusing on the unum of its saga, from the “greatest generation” of World War II to baseball, jazz, our national parks, and the lives of Mark Twain and Jackie Robinson. A kind of unifying nostalgia marks the Burns brand, making his films easy to spot and vulnerable to parody: telling just-folks stories through a signature blend of faded photos and old-timey music. Yet the history of Burns’s beloved America is fraught — rebellion, class struggles, and political discord, corruption and injustice, and, always, the specter of race relations and the stain of slavery. Like the Civil War chronicle that made him famous, these are not romantic subjects.
Yes, a Ken Burns film plumbs our shared past for stories that tug at our heartstrings. That, he says — bristling over criticism that his work is sentimental — is how you get people to open their minds to the uncomfortable truths of history. “Emotional archeology is very challenging,” he says.
Which brings us to Vietnam. The common narrative leaves little room for compassion. The war was impossibly complicated, with no clear heroes. At home, the hippies despised the soldiers, the grunts resented the draft dodgers, the returning veterans felt unappreciated. And as the war dragged on, we all learned a hard lesson — that leaders can’t always be trusted.
The current Burns project, a typically prodigious 10-part series set to roll out on PBS beginning September 17, aspires to reconfigure the story of a war that made millions of Americans angry, as often as not at one another. After decades of simmering resentment, Burns and his team hope that through telling a deeper, more sympathetic story of the war, one result will be a shared sense of sorrow over the whole bloody mess. The Vietnam War is 18 hours of television, made while the team worked simultaneously on other programs, a colossal undertaking. And as Burns has been telling preview audiences for the past few months, the heavy burden of Vietnam is still weighing us down. He and co-director Lynn Novick thought the war was a “festering wound” for America when they began working on the film a decade ago. Now, the timing of its release seems just right. There are uncanny parallels with the present day, beginning with the stark reality of a divided nation that can’t seem to conduct a simple dialogue without shouting.
Most people think in binary terms, Burns says: good and bad, us and them, black and white. “But nothing in real life is that way,” he says.
Over a lunchtime salad at Burdick’s, the elegant cafe and chocolate shop that anchors Walpole’s downtown (Burns is a silent partner), the filmmaker expounds on the quality of “negative capability,” as John Keats called it: the ability to acknowledge “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare had negative capability to burn, said the poet. It’s the reason there’s so much confounding human nature that can speak through the centuries in his plays. “Human nature never changes,” Burns says. “Period.”
STILL SLIGHT AND BOYISH at 64, Burns brings a wide-eyed sense of enthusiasm to his subjects, no matter how familiar or picked over. Though he grew up hearing country music, he didn’t develop a true passion for it until his team started work on a documentary due to air on PBS in 2019, says Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator (and Michael Dukakis’s national press secretary during the 1988 presidential campaign). “At the outset, you sometimes have to infect him,” Duncan says. “But he’s very infectable.”
Burns loves the work because he really loves his country. A front pocket of his jeans is stuffed not just with loose change but also with a collection of keepsakes, including a button from a World War II Army uniform given to him by a viewer. When he appeared as a guest on his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, Finding Your Roots, he was distressed, but not surprised, about the slaveholders who showed up in his family tree. What really threw him for a loop was learning that his lineage goes back, during the time of the American Revolution, to a British loyalist. “I bleed red, white, and blue,” Burns said on the show.
When Vietnam veteran Tom Vallely declined Burns’s first invitation to work on the upcoming documentary as a consultant, his son scolded him. “Do you know who Ken Burns is? He’s the guy who tells America what it thinks about itself,” Charlie Vallely told his dad.
IN A CAREER OF LANDMARK FILMS, The Vietnam War might be Burns’s most important yet. The documentary doesn’t look or sound like any other film he’s made. It combines a startling abundance of battlefield footage with a grim, dissonant soundscape from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and frankly intimate interviews — not only with Burns’s usual array of scholars, participants, and eyewitnesses but also, crucially, with Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict. As American history, it’s impressive. Unlike most Burns projects, it’s world history, too, building one of the most comprehensive chronicles of the war that the public, both here and there, has ever seen.
Both sides commit atrocities. Both sides have an abundance of honorable soldiers, too. There’s harrowing archival footage of close-range combat in the jungles and rice paddies and in the former capital city of Hue. There are raw scenes of protest, from self-immolating monks to the National Guard shootings at Kent State. And there are tapes of Lyndon B. Johnson’s tortured deliberations behind closed doors and his rising tension as the war begins to appear unwinnable. “Your press is lyin’ like drunken sailors every day,” the president admonishes one reporter in a phone call.
“This is an epic film,” says Tom Vallely, who is the founding director of the Vietnam Program at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Overcoming his initial reluctance — surely they were looking for his friend Neil Sheehan, author of the classic Vietnam War account A Bright Shining Lie — Vallely became a key consultant for Burns’s Florentine Films, arranging interviews with Vietnamese subjects.
The filmmakers deftly outline the war’s chronology, its defining battles and unconventional tactics, Vallely says. More important, “they get the weight of the chronology in place. You can go to Wikipedia to get the chronology, but you gotta get the weight — what is the significance? — and then tell the story.” There is layered nuance in every story Burns tells, and the writers, editors, and researchers at Florentine (in Walpole and a second office in New York City) go to great lengths to avoid bias. The war’s three principal parties — Communist North Vietnam and its South Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong; nominally democratic South Vietnam; and the United States — all had internal disagreements, making the particulars of the war incredibly hard to parse, even for the experts.
Addressing a packed house at a July preview at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, Vietnam War co-director Lynn Novick recalled that the research for the film was full of tough calls and ambiguities. “Some of the foremost scholars in the room didn’t agree,” Burns’s longtime collaborator said. “Welcome to my world,” joked Ed Miller, a Dartmouth history professor and Vietnam expert who was hosting the screening.
But nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong, as the line goes from one of the many vintage protest songs on the Vietnam War soundtrack. In Ken Burns’s America, nobody’s quite right, but neither is anyone all wrong.
MUCH AS BURNS WOULD like to avoid the “sentimental” tag, he can’t help himself: He’s about to cry again.
He’s been watching rough footage from his upcoming country music project. On camera, singer Dwight Yoakam is quoting from Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together.” The song is about a father who mails a birthday present to his daughter, addressed from her long-absent mother. Yoakam recites the lyric and begins to choke up. When the clip ends, one of the film’s editors — part of a team of about 35 who work with him here in a former country doctor’s home, a mile or so from Burns’s house — clicks “pause.” Burns swivels to face a roomful of collaborators, blinking. “Gets me every time,” he says.
Burns, who was 11 when his mother died, often suggests that the loss influenced his career path. In his films, as his late father-in-law once pointed out, he “wakes the dead.” (In an interview conducted for Country Music, Haggard had explained how the death of his own father affected him at a young age. “Something went out of the world that I was never able to replace,” he said.) Bearing witness as his mother fought a losing battle with breast cancer that metastasized robbed Burns of a typical childhood. “There was baseball and the beach,” he says, “but knowing your mother is dying changes it.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised largely in Michigan, Burns became a New Englander as a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. After a brief stint in New York City after graduation, he settled in Walpole. Just steps from the town common, Florentine’s unmarked editing and production house gives little indication of the extraordinary amount of work that goes on inside, behind the drawn shades. Clusters of desks, hard drives, and monitors fill every room; the freestanding tub in the first-floor bathroom overflows with extra paper towels and toilet tissue and copies of Variety.
Over the years, Burns has surrounded himself with women in decision-making roles. “It’s been to my advantage,” he says. Lynn Novick’s first major project was the 1994 blockbuster Baseball, which grew from a planned five hours to more than 18. She had little knowledge of the game when she came on board, which made her nervous. “I think I had a stomachache the entire time,” she says, laughing.
Like Novick, producer Sarah Botstein (Burns calls her “Bots”) initially signed on for a project she knew nothing about. In her case, it was Florentine’s 2001 series on the history of jazz. Botstein claims she didn’t know the difference between Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan when she began. By the end, she could name every musician who played on their recordings. “One of Ken’s many talents,” Novick says, “is spotting talent in other people and giving them room to fail and learn.”
Just as the team was preparing to fly to Vietnam for an early round of interviews in 2012, a painful case of kidney stones sidelined Burns. Not for the first time, Novick and Botstein ended up conducting most of the sessions. Rarely have Vietnamese veterans spoken so publicly about their war experiences. Devouring daily reports from his colleagues’ historic interactions, Burns knew the assignment was in good hands.
Whoever is doing the interviewing, the aim of every on-camera session is not just to capture the facts. “We’re interested in what you felt,” says Burns.
One of the documentary’s most compelling subjects is Roger Harris, a longtime Boston schools innovator. He served in the Marines in the late 1960s, enduring brutal combat at Con Thien, near the demilitarized zone along the border of what was then North and South Vietnam. In the film, he recounts a phone conversation with his mother in which he said he didn’t expect to make it home.
He most certainly would, she replied: “God has a plan for you.”
The more Harris sat and talked with Novick and Botstein, “the more I felt my story could possibly serve to help society,” he recalls in a phone conversation. “Not just my personal story or a black veteran’s story, but a soldier’s story. The death and destruction, the fear and the anger that we felt — unless you’ve been in a combat situation, nobody can truly understand. I’m hoping they put this film together so that when people see it, they will realize that war is the last resort that any policy maker should ever consider.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, has written that all wars are fought twice — first on the battlefield and then in memory. Novick is fond of citing this observation in her travels promoting The Vietnam War.
Burns knows that history is malleable. “The Civil War I made in 1990,” he says, “is different from the Civil War we talk about now.” That would be the nine-part elegy, co-produced with his filmmaker brother, Ric, that smashed viewership records for PBS when it premiered and established “Ken Burns America” (as his filmography is marketed) as an American institution.
Since then, Burns’s films have been restored, repackaged, and rebroadcast. Looking back, he wouldn’t change a thing. “They’re akin to an old photo album,” he says, sitting at a picnic table that overlooks the fire pit behind his guesthouse and a peach tree that has just ripened. That youthful photo of yourself in paisley and bell-bottoms might make you cringe, he says, but you’d never dream of tearing it up. Because it’s true to life.
In the same way, each of his films is true to the story as he saw it at the time. “The heart’s all there in all of them, I think,” he says. Though his work may seem daunting in scope, it really comes down to one core principle.
“If you just sit and listen to people,” Burns says, “something gets you every time.”James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.