Unsolved Mysteries

Can a documentary answer every question? Should it even try?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards, Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival, and Netflix.
Pictured (left to right): Serial’s Sarah Koenig, Steven Avery of Making a Murderer, director Ken Burns, and Jimmy Tatro as Dylan Maxwell in American Vandal.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards, Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival, and Netflix.

This weekend, two series arrive that highlight the vast breadth of documentaries in an age of insatiable hunger for nonfiction stories. On Sunday night, Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War premieres on PBS, an expansive and edifying consideration of a still raw period in American history that unfolds over 18 hours and 10 episodes. On Friday, Netflix premieres American Vandal, a mockumentary riffing on Netflix’s own Making a Murderer, among others, that unfolds over four hours and eight episodes. Its subject? A teen lunkhead accused of defacing 27 cars with spray-painted dicks.

One of these is a massive act of historical interpretation stretching from 1858 to the present; the other contains a plot revelation hinging on graffitied testicle hair. The two are so patently different in import that to mention them in the same sentence borders on offensive. But these projects’ coincidental co-premieres—the fact that a good idea for a SNL sketch has been accorded 80 percent as many episodes as a Ken Burns magnum opus—also tells us something about our current era, in which facts are under fire from all sides. One is a decidedly out-of-fashion attempt to stitch together a definitive narrative out of contested history. The other is a decidedly au courant stab at creating an alternative narrative through epistemological interrogation of accepted evidence (except, also, it’s completely made up).

Twenty-seven years ago, Burns’ The Civil War was watched by 40 million people. Despite the fact that 40 million people don’t watch anything at the same time anymore but Super Bowl ads, The Vietnam War, co-directed by Lynn Novick, still clearly aspires to be that kind of communal gathering. Unlike Burns’ forays into American subjects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, baseball, and jazz, The Vietnam War delves into contentious living history that informs our current state of polarization. But the series is still, as Ian Parker wrote in a recent profile of Burns, reaching for “a negotiated settlement,” a history of the war we can all more or less agree on, even if it unfolds to rock ’n’ roll guitar, not Burns’ usual soundtrack of acoustic Americana.

Aware of how contentious this subject still is, Burns chose not to interview famous Vietnam figures like John Kerry, John McCain, or Jane Fonda, though the movie does contain interviews with veterans of the North Vietnamese army.  The documentary begins with Peter Coyote’s voice-over intoning, “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation. And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American presidents belonging to both political parties.” This speech is full of compromises designed to keep all Americans, of whatever political persuasion, watching. Burns and his team obsessed over whether to use “failure” or “defeat,” and ultimately went with the gentler choice. And then there is the final reminder that the blood of Vietnam is on both Republican and Democratic hands.

But these compromises only serve The Vietnam War, adding to the sense that it really is a definitive document, the level-headed perspective, the education that we need. The documentary, with its 100 interview subjects, historical video footage, and copious still photographs (which, yes, are given the “Burns effect”), is fascinating, thorough, and ultimately pointed about the disaster that was Vietnam. In a moment when we can’t agree on anything, when facts are suspect and fantasy flaunted as fact, The Vietnam War is constructed as if this were not the case. As timely as The Vietnam War’s material is—it’s a documentary about a period of deep polarization, governmental misconduct, and divergent ideas of how patriotism is expressed—it is stylistically out of sync. It’s a throwback to a simpler past, and a prod toward a more civil future.

The Ken Burns–style giant project that seeks to explain something tremendously complex to everybody is so out of fashion it is not even satirized by American Vandal, which does pay homage to contemporary and popular true-crime documentary series, including The Jinx and some Errol Morris (whose The Fog of War is a good companion piece to The Vietnam War). In American Vandal, two high school students, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), willfully try to ape Serial by launching an investigation into the case of Dylan Maxwell (a superbly doltish Jimmy Tatro), a bad seed expelled for dicks he likely didn’t draw. American Vandal plays it so straight that its opening credits, a Making a Murderer homage, identify “Peter Maldonado” and “Sam Ecklund” as the producers.

American Vandal is easy to make fun of, but it takes chutzpah to turn something that probably should have been a viral phony trailer into four hours of content. The show has the rhythm of a joke that starts out pretty funny, gets way less funny as it’s repeated, and then, repeated some more, becomes hilariously deranged. The first few episodes zip along amusingly enough, with Peter and Sam confirming Dylan’s timeline, checking out his alibi, and digging deep into the reliability of an eyewitness who may or may not be the kind of nerd who’d lie about getting a hand job from a popular girl. But it’s only during the nadir of Episodes 4 and 5, when Peter and Sam start looking into other suspects (themselves included), that it really registers: Oh, they’re going to do this for eight episodes. By the time Peter puts his documentary online and it goes viral, like Serial, affecting the course of the case, I was as awed by American Vandal as I would be by the world’s largest rubber cement ball or some other testament to human stick-to-itiveness.

American Vandal, like the series that it apes, is all questions: What really happened? Why did it happen? Can we ever know what really happened? Can we ever really know anyone? Can we ever know anything? And if we can’t, can we get justice? Serial, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, insofar as they come to conclusions, ask the audience—and more importantly the justice system—to question theirs. So does American Vandal, which, in the absence of real-life injustice, feels a little cheesy: not judging a teen by his appearance is also the moral of The Breakfast Club.  (It’s not for nothing that the Netflix show American Vandal most resembles ultimately is teen drama 13 Reasons Why, and no, that isn’t a spoiler.)

Almost every single moment contained in the 18-hour The Vietnam War could be treated in the “What really happened? And can we ever know?” style of contemporary, searching documentaries. Co-director Novick told Vanity Fair of the war, “There’s no agreement among scholars, or Americans or Vietnamese, about what happened: the facts, let alone whose fault, let alone what we’re supposed to make of it.” To have adjudicated all these questions on camera would have led to a documentary 1,000 hours long, one that told us so much more about the nitty-gritty subjectivity of the Vietnam War it might as well have told us nothing. There is power in questioning everything, and power in trying to answer everything too.