In college, one of my professors referred to the Vietnam conflict as “the first rock and roll war.” While the onomatopoeic nature of the phrase is appropriate, the point was one of considerable debate. Certainly, the war’s effect on popular culture is undeniable; many examples exist that show how Vietnam and the culture of the era intersect, especially in terms of how it affected the music of the era.
Hearts and Minds, created by documentary filmmaker Peter Davis, appeared in 1974, right as the war was ending, the Nixon administration was crumbling, and American confidence in its leadership fell to an all-time low. Anti-war supporters felt justified by the film, while critics lambasted it as one-sided,while pro-Vietnam minded folk dismissed it as a Communist propaganda film. Remastered by Criterion forty years after its release, Hearts and Minds still retains its thought-provocation.
Davis’ intent for the film was a noble one: present the Vietnam war by looking at the impact of the war on Vietnam itself, to present a hard, honest look at the human cost of war. In order to understand the war, Davis presented the views of pro-war government officials like Clark Clifford and Walt Rostow and military leaders US Army General William Westmoreland and ARVN General Nguyen Khahn, as well as archival footage of every President from Truman to Nixon.
While the pro-war side is represented, it’s overshadowed by the voices of dissenters and anti-war activists. In this respect, one might think that Davis has let a bias influence his decision, but in the commentary, Davis states that he intentionally did not interview anti-war types who simply took that stance because they didn’t want to serve, or people who had no investment in the war. Thus, those who are speaking against the war are people who were initially supportive—mainly soldiers, several of which are disabled thanks to the war, including Bobby Muller, a Marine who was paralyzed in battle. His story is truly touching; he believed in his country and felt he was serving the greater good; when shot, he states he lost not his faith in his country, but the pride he took as an American, serving his country. Davis deftly holds back the full scope of his story until the end, when it is revealed he is wheelchair-bound.
It’s Davis’ sense of style that creates the tension and the emotional power. It cannot be denied that Hearts and Minds is an emotionally-charged film; showing Mui Duc Giang discussing the war as he makes a child-sized coffin drives home the horrible reality of war without having to show dead bodies. Additionally, when Davis sustains a long, uncomfortable silence after sisters Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu discuss the recent death of their sister, the pain and grief proves overwhelming.
It is to Davis’ credit that he at least attempted to show two sides of the story—the reported story, and the reality. This is most obvious at the film’s end, when General Westmoreland states that Asian people do not value life. Davis intertwines this statement with a funeral of a dead Vietnamese soldier. His mother is grieving intensely—even attempting to jump into the grave itself—as is a young boy—presumably this man’s son. Westmoreland’s comments are horribly, horribly racist, but they’re not taken out of context, as Westmoreland made these statements more than once during the interview.
Davis also made the creative decision to not narrate the documentary. His logic at the time was that narrators will inherently create a bias, and he wanted Hearts and Minds to be an objective look at the social impact of the conflict on the citizens of South Vietnam. In listening to him discuss his motivations on the commentary track, one quickly gets the feeling that this decision was a sincere (if not slightly naive) move on his part.
The problem that arises from such an aesthetic choice is that while the lack of narration removes bias, it also removes context. What, exactly, is he trying to say when he shows the burning of a hut by American troops, while an older family watches? Is it done as a vulgar display of power, or is it done because the building was a military instillation posing as something more innocent? Taken without any context, the scene seems brutal—but was it? We don’t know—and Davis never states what is actually taking place. Additionally, the whorehouse scene is gratuitous sex, and though Davis proclaims that he had to have such a scene in the film, and believes it’s an allegory for the greater issues of the war, it doesn’t seem to occur to Davis that prostitution has long co-mingled with military actions.
The most notable story taken out of context is that of Lieutenant George Coker. A Naval flight officer, he was shot down in 1966 and taken prisoner. In the documentary, he is shown receiving a hero’s welcome, as well as talking to an audience of Catholic middle-school students. His comments often come across as horrid, such as when he states that Vietnam would be a nicer place without the people, as well as his feelings about draft dodgers. What isn’t shown or discussed, though, is the brutality that he faced as a prisoner of war—one he would later document as a hell on earth experience. Without the benefit of context, Coker’s experience is marginalized, giving the viewer only the shallowest of looks into the complex and painful seven year hell.
What makes this reissue especially rewarding is the bonus content. Instead of the usual documentaries or “making of” commentaries, Criterion has offered up well over two hours of raw source material, featuring extended interviews with some of the documentary’s interview subjects, while offering up a number of interviews of people who did not appear in the final cut. There’s an extended conversation with David Brinkley that is illuminating, as he talks about media bias. His statements about how the news would become a situation where people only want to hear the news they agree with is eerily prophetic. Equally compelling is the interview with Anthony Russo, who worked alongside Daniel Ellsberg and helped him leak the Pentagon Papers.
Hearts and Minds is a powerful documentary, and it evoked a major reaction upon its release. Of course, coming as it did on the heels of the Watergate scandal, the fall of Saigon, and a growing mistrust of the US government, in hindsight, it was perhaps too soon to tackle such a controversial subject. It didn’t help that upon its winning of the Academy Award for Documentary, producer Bert Schneider controversially read a telegram from North Vietnamese delegates that thanked the anti-war movement for bringing an end tot he war. Critics predisposed to thinking it was anti-American now had what they felt was justified proof that it was a Communist propaganda film. Such a notion may seem silly, but his actions–which provoked instant reactions from Frank Sinatra and other members of the Academy–essentially ended Schneider’s career. (It’s also worth noting that this reissue never brings up the speech, and Schneider is rarely mentioned.)
That a film could still invoke a reaction 40 years later proves Davis succeeded in getting people to talk about the war in a critical way. Whatever your views on war and Vietnam may be, it is undeniable that Hearts and Minds plays an important role in the story of the war, and is an essential document for those interested the era.