The show did show a clip of Mailer arm in arm at the march with poet Robert Lowell and linguist/American foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky.
The writers anchor a line of middle-aged, distinguished-looking marchers, who wear coats and ties and have serious, intellectual looks. The group probably includes noted child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock and writer Dwight Macdonald, although I couldn't identify them.
While showing a fleeting glimpse of the famous intellectuals, the documentary doesn't mention their involvement in the march, diminishing the depth of its support in the country.
Even so, the documentary gives a fairly extensive look at the march, one of the milestones in the public's turn against the war. But a citation from Mailer would have given substance to the documentary's report.
Won Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award
Mailer's book, fully titled "The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History," won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Published in 1968, the book followed two other "nonfiction novel" classics of New Journalism, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," and Hunter S. Thompson's "Hell's Angels" and preceded Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
A portion of the book, "On the Pentagon Steps" was first published in Willie Morris' Harper's magazine in March 1968. The book came out later that same horrible year, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson's decision to not seek re-election.
Referring to himself in the third person, Mailer describes his participation in the march, including a drunken speech that he made at a pre-march organizing event and his arrest and time in jail along with other antiwar protesters. For the book, Mailer added a section titled "Why Are We in Vietnam," which discussed arguments for and against the war.
Mailer's wild impressionistic language captured the mood of the American '60s. Its jazzy energy was matched a couple of months later by Wolfe's book.
Robert Lowell fans treasure Mailer's description of Lowell's volatile, heroic personality. While Mailer was a combat veteran of World War II, the basis of his famous novel "The Naked and the Dead," Lowell was a conscientious objector in World War II, serving time in prison.
Instead of citing Mailer's report on the Pentagon march, Burns and Novick give the recollections of Bill Zimmerman, a professor who participated in the antiwar movement.
They also give President Lyndon Johnson's reaction to the march, in a recorded conversation with former President Dwight Eisenhower. (Johnson's conversations during the show are illustrated by a shot of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape player in operation. I wondered whether those are the original tapes playing, or a dramatic re-creation by Burns.)
The documentary's recordings of Johnson provide some of "The Vietnam War's" most interesting moments. Sadly, the recordings show the president growing ever more unhinged, overwhelmed by the war's conundrums and the erosion of his Great Society dreams.
In the conversation with Eisenhower, Johnson's paranoia rises as he hypothesizes about the young protesters' possible mental illness, discloses as if to himself that he'll send "Hoover" after them and wonders if a communist conspiracy is behind the protest. Eisenhower's muted response seemed to indicate shock over Johnson's mental condition.
Vietnam participants excluded
Burns and Novick have been criticized by not including famous Vietnam figures such as Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The documentary does have reflections from Leslie Gelb, who led the Pentagon Papers research before a career at The New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The filmmakers also chose not to include interviews with John McCain, John Kerry and Bob Kerrey, finding them "too radioactive." McCain is shown in agonizing footage from a hospital bed in North Vietnam just after his plane was shot down. Both of McCain's arms were broken, and his also suffered a broken leg. Later, he endured years of torture and deprivations.
Testimony from Ellsberg, McCain, Kerry and Kerrey would have added perspective to "The Vietnam War." But I've found enlightening the interviews with previously unknown voices, such as the Gold Star mother from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and combat veterans, including those who fought for America and those who fought for North Vietnam.
Burns and Novick made choices, as all artists do. While the show has flaws, it brings fresh views about the tragic war.