Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman), his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), teenage daughter Charlotte and son Jacob continue as criminal minds laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel with roots in Chicago. The introduction of Helen Pierce ( the stunning Janet McTeer) as the attorney for the drug cartel ratchets up the ruthless and cunning subplots that made Season 1 of “Ozark” (see September 20, 2017 review) so addictive to watch.
The Byrdes are finally settling in to the Ozarks, compartmentalizing their illegal activities which they excel at with their determination to instill family values in their children which they fail at.
Dangers are everywhere–within their family, obviously from the cartel, but also from an Ozark family “cursed” to a life of crime–the Langmores– and from another Ozark family–the Snells– who are heavily involved with both local politics and maintaining their own hold on distributing illegal drugs from their “poppy” farm.
Ironically, Ruth Langmore (talented newcomer Julia Garner), yearns for a way out of the “curse” blocking her attempts to find the family and values she wants.
All three deformed families conjure up writhing snakes in a pit in which survival is ugly, bloody, and momentary advantage is the key stratagem.
The Byrdes find that every transaction involves betrayal, violence, and passive witnessing of atrocity. In the process, each member of the family gives up a piece of themselves until there is not much remaining of themselves to give up.
Marty’s mantra is that we all make our own choices and are responsible for how our lives turn out. But “Ozark” demonstrates–like “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter”–that circumstances can limit our options, until we become so flawed that we feel cornered and trapped with no options.
In Ozark season 2 we wonder how it will end: Will the Byrdes – and their children – ever be able to feel safe, secure, and content?
This season is even better than the first in tackling the corrupting power of wealth and greed, human nature, and the ties that bind a family and define it.
This new undertaking (by Amazon Prime) of Tom Clancy’s blockbuster Jack Ryan series pays off big-time. John Krasinski as a boyish Jack Ryan adds unexpected dimension to this eight-episode series focused on a terrorist plot in Syria. If this is your genre, you will inevitably make a comparison with Clancy’s books and the older cinematic depictions of Jack Ryan. However, standing on its own, the new Jack Ryan series is riveting, albeit with some graphic violence and cultural stereotyping.
Reluctantly drafted into being a CIA operative instead of a number-crunching budget analyst by demoted CIA director James Greer (the wonderful Wendell Pierce of “The Wire”), Ryan soon learns that the CIA bureaucracy is no different from any other. His analytical skills are mostly ignored, although always proved right later on. Greer is his reluctant mentor. Add a romantic subplot with Dr. Cathy Mueller (Abbie Cornish from “Three Billboards outside Ebbings, Missouri”) and you have a complex thirty-something bureaucrat trying to fit into the CIA at the same time he wants a balanced life. In addition, the terrorist master-mind has a family and provides additional complexity to the plot.
This Jack Ryan Amazon series passed my test for binge-worthy: easy entertainment, mostly fast-paced, yet intelligent in character development. There is a great character arc with some memorable dialog and beautiful cinematography. [Filmed on location in Morocco, as a stand-in for Syria.)
Note: Confession–I’ve only seen Jack Ryan in film, and have not read any of the books, but my husband has and loved the dramatization with Krasinski. Highly skewed reviews online from one-star to five-star (influenced by the political divide currently perhaps?) Judge for yourself! I can’t wait for season 2 next year.
Mr. Mercedes, an Audience (DirecTV) mystery-thriller original series, is based on the Stephen King trilogy “Mr. Mercedes”, “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch”. The macabre master again conjures alarming boundary-breaking drama, this time in economically depressed Bridgton, Ohio.
The opening scene is horrific: a Mercedes sedan mows down a crowd of job-seekers waiting late at night for the next morning’s job fair to open. A few of those waiting in line have babies. A massacre occurs, but the viewer does not know who the driver is or what motivates him or her.
Soon we meet Brady, the toxic male sociopath rivaling Norman Bates of “Bates Motel”, (played by an astonishing Harry Treadaway), pressured by a seething rage, the source of which is a seriously sick relationship with his mother. Brady is part Mr. Robot, dwelling in the basement, plotting cyber revenge on the world. And the main character and investigator who, for the second time, has to solve the crime is a disheveled drunk but nevertheless rather appealing Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), who retired after unsuccessfully investigating the “Mercedes Massacre” years ago.
Slowly Brady boldly begins to reveal himself, through cyber messages to Hodges, promising another attack. For the retired detective, Brady provides the opportunity to redeem himself by proving once and for all that the Mercedes massacre can be solved. And as for Brady, he craves validation and recognition, wanting to assert his own dominance over others. The two–Brady and Hodges– play off each other’s unhealed wounds.
As the episodes in the first season progress, viewers learn just how obsessive both Hodges and Brady are. In the second season, now being broadcast (but not completed), we see Brady suffering locked-in syndrome, a condition in which the mind is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis. What is happening inside Brady’s mind? Will he maintain his sick mental state or morph into a new one?
Visceral and emotional turmoil seem to be sustained in season two, with science fiction strongly inserted as only Stephen King can. I naturally wonder if Mr. Mercedes can maintain the horror and suspense. Highly recommend season one and will withhold my assessment of the current season until the finale!
Note: Only available as Audience streaming to DirecTV subscribers at the time of this writing.
The Tunnel Seasons 2 and 3 continue the tension from the first season, with a British and French detective partnership (Karl Roebuck and Elise Wasserman respectively) again working to solve a heinous series of crimes. (See my August 7, 2016 review of season 1: “The Tunnel–Turf War or Building Bridges”.) Both season 2 and 3 seamlessly continue the tension, though by different writers and directors.
In Season 2 (“Sabotage”) the main plot is trying to figure out why a commercial airliner was hacked to override the autopilot, crashing in the ocean, killing everyone on board. The crash might be connected to other strange incidents including the abduction of the parents of a five-year-old girl while in the Chunnel.
There are many plot twists and subplots: connecting all the dots and understanding the motivation of each character, including the detective team. The narrative becomes quite convoluted. The sexual lives of Karl Roebuck (the excellent Stephen Dillane from “Game of Thrones) and Elise Wasserman (Fleur Delacour in “Harry Potter”) are revealed to be more complicated than in season 1. A sinister and mysterious mastermind, as well as a chemist who could rival the Nazi Mingele in his experiments, will keep the viewer on edge. No spoiler alerts here, but be prepared for nail-biting terror. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make this second season of “The Tunnel” just as spellbinding as the previous season.
Season 3 (“Vengeance”) stands on its own from the previous seasons with again, a new director and writer. In the anti-refugee hysteria of our times, we see the desperation of a mother looking for the child she gave up decades ago during the war in Croatia. An escalating refugee crisis and the exiled souls who experienced unspeakable tragedy seek relief from a society which mostly has turned its back.
Playing on the “Pied Piper” who purportedly promised a better life for the children who followed, we see the two intrepid investigators try to make sense of grisly sexualized murders, cyberstalking, a plague of rats echoing the Pied Piper, and a macabre medieval enactment of murder. There is a subplot of a past cold case that still haunts Elise, also involving a child: missing children, children found, abandoned, troubled, and redeemed overlay the subplots and involve deceit, corruption, and trauma.
All of the disparate strands of this drama come to a tightly woven, shocking climax in the final episode ending this phenomenal three-season thriller. Few hints of what is to come in the finale prepare the viewer for the resolution, part satisfactory and part disconnected.
Highly recommended! And worthy of a repeat viewing, because the plots are so difficult to follow at times.
Note: Available on Amazon Prime (first two seasons) and Netflix (all three).
Adapted from the best-selling detective novels by the German author Volker Kutscher, the highly praised Babylon Berlinbegins less than ten years after the Treaty of Versailles. Germany is in turmoil. (Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would come to power in 1933.) Set in the golden ’20s (1926-1929), Berlin is not so golden for everyone. The Nazi takeover is still a couple of years in the future, but the general turmoil is already evident.
Babylon Berlin is part period drama, part police procedural, and part mystery thriller, but there is always an undercurrent of intense foreboding, drawing on our 100 percent hindsight of what’s to come. Hitler’s name is heard only once and Brown Shirts first appear in one of the last scenes. The era’s troubled Zeitgeist is well-known to viewers but not to the players in this underworld of politics.
Suffering from “shell shock” and addicted to morphine, police detective Gereon Roth (Volker Bruch), arrives in Berlin and connects with Lotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a police department typist, nightclub entertainer and part-time prostitute. She aspires to being the first female homicide detective, eager to escape the hardships of poverty and her brutal family life. Lotte manages to become a heroine despite the sexism and corruption of the police force.
Gereon and Lotte soon discover conspiracies and intrigue: hijacked freight trains, smuggled munitions, sex trafficking, police partnering with organized crime, Soviet collusion, Communist (Trotsky) revolutionaries, drug deals, and élite corporate magnates invested in maintaining their grip on the economy. Throughout, we see Berlin as a swamp of contrasts: elegant Berliners fill a debaucherous cabaret as rampant poverty persists in nearby neighborhoods; outright bigotry and violence occur daily and secretly; and ordinary Berliners cling either to a tenuous status quo or to dreams of revolution.
From economy to culture, everything is in the grip of radical change. Speculation and inflation are already tearing away at the foundations of the still young Weimar Republic. Growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life for the privileged and well-connected.
Weimar Democracy was under attack both from the Communist Left, as well as by traditional Conservatives, in a kind of unholy alliance. The Nazis did not just arise from nowhere. They were citizens who reacted to Germany’s economic conditions and wanted radical change. Both the government and the wealthy in Germany and Russia use this populism to serve their own dreams of domination.
Politically and economically, the nation was struggling with the terms and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) that ended World War I. Punishing levels of inflation ensued.
The parallels with today are particularly disturbing. Could this backstory of what happened in Germany in the 1930s and the years immediately preceding the rise and stranglehold of Nazism foreshadow America today? And of course, we naturally speculate how easy it is for an anxious public to succumb to a demagogue.
Note: This Netflix Original series is in German and subtitled.
Promoted as a Scandinavian noir detective series on the streets of Britain, Marcella is written and directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of The Bridge. Two seasons on Netflix, Marcella delves into the psychology of a deeply troubled London detective.
In Season One Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) investigates a cold case involving a serial killer who appears to have become active again. At the same time Marcella also has to deal with her disintegrating personal life, where her husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has made the decision to leave her and take their two children into his custody. In addition, her soon-to-be ex-husband is suspected of being involved with the murder of his former girlfriend, Grace. Due to traumatic blackouts Marcella cannot recall her own confrontation with Grace.
In Season Two Marcella investigates a pedophile, who has victimized and murdered her young son’s best friend and other young boys and girls. The suspects include an arrogant millionaire, a 1970s rock star with dementia, and his talent agent. Her estranged feckless husband has become engaged to a nurse, putting their children in the middle of an ugly custody battle. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counseling to help her remember –under hypnosis–what happens.
Both seasons of Marcella delve into the psychology of a deeply troubled and flawed character, whom some viewers will find difficult to empathize with. Tortured and battling her own demons while trying to solve some of the most gruesome crimes on the streets of London, Marcella is challenged by doubt and “impostor syndrome”, not believing in her own capabilities to discover the murderers.
In the final episode of Season Two we see Marcella end her denial, admit she is not well, and descend into an abyss. We are waiting to see how she claws her way out in the projected Season Three.
In 2017, Friel was awarded the International Emmy Award for Best Actress. The structure of the narratives in Marcella are so complex that a second viewing is recommended. Could the narratives have been clearer? Yes, but still not so convoluted as to pass on this one. Not as riveting as The Bridge in several of its versions, but nonetheless highly original and psychologically riveting.
This British crime drama (PBS Masterpiece Mystery), comprised of three episodes in two seasons, focuses on one stone-cold case per season. Each involves a murder at least three decades old. The detective team– Cassie Stuart (the wonderful Nicola Walker of “Last Tango in Halifax” and Sunny Khan (the perfectly cast Sanjeev Bhaskar of “Indian Summers”)–solve each cold case in a delicate balancing of tension with hints of romance.
In Season 1 of Unforgotten the detectives discover the 1976 remains of a teenage boy found in the sub-basement of an apartment complex. No one but the two detectives seems to care or expect closure to the case, presuming any persons of interest would be untraceable or dead.
Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power. There’s no indication that any of them know each other — or, really, could possibly know each other.
Season 2 of Unforgotten takes the drama up a notch. The detective team investigates another cold case– of a middle-aged man stuffed into a suitcase. His past is sordid. As the two detectives investigate the texts of possible suspects left on the pager of the deceased, secrets and lies are revealed for each of the persons of interest. But, all of them have rock-solid alibis. Questions of what constitutes justice are provocative. The two detectives eventually solve the mystery.
What distinguishes a mystery about a cold case is the stories of older people who have tremendous arcs revealing a complex series of rebirths: their pasts so complicated that who they are in the present is virtually unrecognizable. All middle-aged and old people were once young, with challenges and sex lives they may wish to forget but are not forgotten. In Unforgotten the history of each character– of their secrets and regrets– is the core narrative. Like all good stories, the characters’ arcs reveal who we were, who we have become, and who we could be. Unforgotten is a stunning melodrama!
Note: The two-season series has now ended, but can be seen on PBS.com. Season 3 of Unforgotten is now in production.
Inspired by a true story and the novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror, a new AMC television series, takes the viewer into perilous territory as a 19th century Royal Navy crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Circle. A holy grail for intrepid explorers dating back to the 1700’s, the Northwest Passage is now open to cargo ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships because of climate change. That wasn’t always the case.
The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth. Terror ensues.
HMS Terror’s Captain Francis Crozier (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) has every expectation of achieving the opening of the Northwest Passage, after replacing the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin (Game of Thrones” Ciaran HInds). Having a change of heart as he assumes command, Crozier must believe in their mission at the same time he is doubtful that they will succeed. His command and pretense at confidence are revealed through the toll that his deception takes on the man. In the first epsiode the word hubris is muttered, and it hangs over the rest of the series, a diagnosis, a rebuke, and a lesson on the profound misunderstanding of other worlds.
As winter approaches, with scurvy and starvation growing more severe, a young frightened Inuit woman (sneeringly nicknamed “Lady Silence”) is demonized.The Terror lives up to its name–not only as the name of a ship but also as the state of mind trapped in a frozen seascape.
In all the episodes we begin to understand uncomfortable truths: These men — all men — would survive, or at least find peace, if they could consider the world through someone else’s perspective. And they can’t.The Terror highlights all that can go wrong when a group of men, desperate to survive, struggle not only with the elements, but with each other and with a type of life that threatens their belief system.
Meticulous detail and painstaking reconstruction of what life on a naval ship looked like in 1846 are impressive as are the visual effects which rarely seem like a set or too many CGI special effects.
The Terror is a haunting, gripping story–not a horror flick– which will nonetheless chill you to your core. The tightness of the miniseries format certainly helps. I tore through precious food rations. An unbelievably taut and original spin on adventure, exploration, and trespassing the boundaries of nature!
“The Alienist”, a TNT psychological thriller set in 1896, is based on the novel by Caleb Carr. People with mental illness were once considered “alienated from society,” unfathomable to doctors and laymen alike. Those who thought they could treat them were referred to as alienists, pre-dating the Freudian psychiatric movement by more than a decade. The Alienist foreshadows the Freudian theory of the unconscious, and the incipient emergence of forensics (including the first attempts at fingerprinting). If that is not enough, the series also foreshadows the suffragist movement, through the eyes of a police assistant trying to break through the glass ceiling of the NYPD.
The Alienist opens with a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, terrorizing New York City . Newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) calls upon criminal psychologist/alienist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct a secret investigation. They are joined by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a headstrong secretary determined to become the city’s first female police detective and who is the key to solving the crimes. Using the emerging disciplines of psychology and early forensic investigation techniques, this band of outsiders sets out to find and apprehend New York City’s infamous serial killer.
The dark foreboding era of the Gilded Age is impeccably captured, immersing the viewer into a time period when the poor and the uber-rich were seen as two separate species. J.P. Morgan, the Astor family and their rarified social circles are played as the underbelly influencing not only finance and industry but also law enforcement and the news media.
Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt must maneuver his way through the power structure of Morgan and the Astors while the journalist Lincoln Steffens is trying to keep everyone honest. The acting is superb, with wonderful ensemble performances. The ending is a bit weak, an attempt to humanize the unsympathetic anti-hero Dr. Kreizler, and could have been omitted.
Nonetheless, this enthralling portrait of the mean streets of Victorian New York City is a keeper.
The Netflix Original series Seven Seconds(premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.
The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?
In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.
There are two main characters, both black women. Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.
The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.
These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.
Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them. This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.
Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!
Having the highest ratings for any network sitcom in almost four years, the revival of the ABC television show “Roseanne” had 18.2 million viewers last week, and features most of the original cast.
And then this high-concept sitcom begins to evoke memories of the good old days of “Roseanne” and “All in the Family”, with the same old-fashioned couch, the living room that made “Roseanne” a bona fide pioneer (1988-1997) with its focus on blue-collar Americans in Lanford, Illinois. Still set in this fictional town in the Midwest, now Roseanne is back, and Trump is in. And every viewer knows Illinois is a “red state”.
Although the divisive Trump is never mentioned by name (rumored to be a requirement for funding the show), Roseanne Barr has let it be known that her show would grapple with how the 2016 election has divided American families and friendships. This is an intriguing goal for revitalizing the most difficult of comedic themes: family dysfunction and how families change and redefine themselves. Now overlay that with the cultural and political wars of today.
In the opening scene we see Dan Conner (played by John Goodman) come back to life literally after the 1997 finale in which Dan died of a heart attack. The new Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is an unabashed Trump supporter while her sister, Jackie (the Tony-award winning Laurie Metcalfe) again plays Roseanne’s polar opposite. She wears a “pussy hat” , “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, and battles almost every argument her sister puts forth.
“Roseanne” of the 1988-1997 seasons had many darkly political themes including sexism, racism, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the landscape has changed. The highest-rated series among adults under 50 is currently “This Is Us,” and tackles the same issues of the old “Roseanne” but now interracial marriages and relationships, same-sex marriage, and a host of former hot-button divisive issues are more widely accepted in some demographics. In attempting to update the new “Roseanne” with current issues, the premiere features a grandson who wears skirts suggesting he will be transgender and a granddaughter who is biracial.
Laughing at the old Roseanne, Jackie, and Dan Conner of the late 20th century, viewers were encouraged to see the Conner family torn by everyday challenges that many viewers did not have personal experience with. We were pulled in by razor-sharp dialogue, character arcs driven by superb actors, and humor not overridden by laugh tracks. The vintage sitcom was enjoyable regardless of whether the political arguments were ones the viewer agreed with.
What happened to Roseanne Barr’s gift for vocal range, not strident or flat delivery? And the two additions of child actors–the possibly transgender little boy struggling with bullying from classmates and the little biracial girl who silently sits at the dining room table so the viewer notices her? They have no character development. Roseanne is afraid for her little grandson but isn’t sure confronting the school administrators is the answer. Why not have Dan go to school in a tutu to challenge the bullies? The little girl is assumed to be part African American. Why not have her play with a white Barbie and a black one and ask her grandpa which one he thinks is prettier? That would be suggestive of the “Roseanne” I miss so much.
The reboot of “Roseanne” was an opportunity to explain the nation’s culture wars to an audience that sorely needs to hear it. And the producers and writers passed. Millions of viewers, perhaps, gathered around their televisions and, as in the vintage ” Roseanne”, some may still see themselves in the Conner family. But it is not the Conner family we came to understand in the vintage show. The 2018 “Roseanne” doesn’t deliver what was promised and the acting is a lukewarm flat series of performances, with the exception of the incomparable Laurie Metcalfe.
Too bad that blue collar and low socio-economic class are now identified with Trump. This is both inaccurate and overly simplistic.
Some reviewers called the new “Roseanne” timeless, but with its overtly political message that no one (including Trump) can ignore, what is timeless about 2016? ABC executives and “Roseanne” producers reject the notion that the show’s popularity is mainly because of its appeal to Trump supporters. Will we see sustained viewer numbers or will the gap between what was promised and what was delivered be too wide? Certainly this viewer was turned off.
Note: The top audience markets for the debut were a red-state checklist: Cincinnati, OH; Kansas City, MO.; Tulsa, OK, Springfield, IL. Liberal metropolises like New York and Los Angeles did not crack the top 20. Channing Dungey,the president of ABC Entertainment, said “the success of ‘Roseanne’ was a direct result of the post-Election Day initiative to pursue an audience that the network had overlooked.”
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.
Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture. The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.
The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly: “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”
The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.
Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.
We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.
The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.
The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.
The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.
Note:The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).
There are still buried landmines killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.