WASHINGTON – The Washington screening of filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "The Vietnam War" was attended by public servants who know a thing or two about the conflict from 50 years ago.
Before the screening began, Burns asked Vietnam veterans in the auditorium to stand up and dozens did. After the crowd applauded the veterans, Burns asked people who protested the war at the time to stand up.
"I couldn't tell the difference," he said, adding that he wants to "begin the process of reconciliation."
Sen. John McCain, who was a prisoner of war, and fellow Vietnam vets and former Sens. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel attended the screening and spoke on a panel afterward.
"John Kerry – who I hate – we're on an airplane headed for Baghdad," McCain said, as he started to speak about the 10-year process he and Kerry went through after they decided they needed to "normalize relations" between Vietnam and the U.S.
Kerry responded, "Let me begin by saying that I try to hate John but I can't."
Hagel shot back: "First, let me say that McCain and Kerry are both losers. That's about it."
The love-hate fest came after Burns and Novick played six clips from their 18-hour long documentary, which is set in 10 parts.
Burns, opening the screening at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night, said that he had talked to McCain before about how the six clips didn't do the film justice.
"With his cooperation, we've locked the doors and we're going to show all 18 hours right now," Burns joked. "You should be out about 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon if we don't take any bathroom breaks."
The first clip shown was part of the opening of the full film, which is about the "failure" of the war and how no veterans talk about it. It teases to the fact that the story will be told through accounts of veterans, the North Vietnamese and protesters.
The second was the voice of a North Vietnam guerilla from Hanoi forced to move to Saigon. The third was about the awful conditions the U.S. troops faced in Vietnam, and the fourth was about the anti-war movement in the U.S.
The fifth highlighted when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked the U.S. embassy in the then South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and how the American public viewed it at home versus what actually happened.
And the sixth included the story behind the Vietnam memorial in D.C. and the response to it by veterans, relatives of soldiers killed in the war, and anti-war activists.
"Depends on the weather – sometimes once a week, sometimes once every couple of weeks," McCain said of how often he visits the memorial.
All three veterans on the panel enjoyed the film and the message Burns and Novich were trying to convey of reconciliation.
"I think it's marvelous. I think it's the right time to tell it because there has to be a period of time after a conflict when the passions cool ... and you start to get the real story," McCain said. "Particularly because we are in such turmoil in the world today, and we look back at the Vietnam conflict and don't make the same mistakes as before."
Kerry added, "The biggest lesson of all ... this film honors all Vietnam veterans, honors those who served and it recognizes that you should never confuse the warriors from the war."
Hagel added, "(It's) the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most honest telling of this story of 50 years ago. I've been particularly struck with the fairness and the different sides that (Burns) presented."
"The Vietnam War" premieres on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS stations.