Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hearts and Minds is a powerful documentary that in 1975 brought a human face to a war
we'd previously seen only as television news coverage. Using interviews with witnesses
and participants in the conflict,
Peter Davis' Oscar-winning film is a searing indictment of American policy. The film footage
and the interviews, recorded in 1972 and 1973 in the U.S., Paris, and Vietnam, are allowed to
speak for themselves without a didactic narration.
Through filmed interviews and archive footage, the Vietnam war is examined from both
American and Vietnamese points of view. The show establishes that the U.S. financed France's attempt
to retain its Indo-Chinese colony after WW2, and that the American public was lied to by every
administration since Truman in regard to American aims there. We hear the opinions of people on
every side of the issue: government officials, General Westmoreland, a medal of honor winner,
other veterans, a draft deserter, their parents, Vietnamese officials, corrupt Vietnamese businessmen,
monks, and peasants. The picture that emerges is a political-emotional one. L.B.J. entered America
into the war saying that victory depended on winning the hearts and minds of 'those people out
there', and the testimony here shows our complete failure.
The most impressive and courageous thing about Hearts and Minds is that it was made during
the Vietnam conflict, not afterwards. Ignoring the controversy it would undoubtedly raise, the film
simply presents a set of facts from newsreel footage and some of the people who created policy, and
examines the effects of the policy on the people who lived it.
No war is noble from some perspective, but it's difficult to find anything redeemable in the
Vietnam conflict, especially after the 1971 revelation of the Pentagon Papers. Hearts and
Minds' truth isn't very flattering to the United States. The docu takes pains to deglamorize the
fighting by showing the pain and the cruelty of bombing, indiscriminate killing, and torture. The
revered image of J.F.K. is tarnished by the story of how he was complicit in setting up and tearing
down a succession of puppet presidents for South Vietnam.
American fighting men brag about torturing and murdering their captives. We see villages being burned
and hear the testimony of a Viet man who tries to return to farming but keeps getting rounded up into
'relocation' camps. An outspoken and vulgar veteran talks sardonically about losing an arm and a leg
to friendly fire. An ex-pilot expresses his guilt over bombing civilians. Non-Communist South Vietnamese
risk their lives expressing anti-American sentiments.
Hearts and Minds holds back very little. Uncut film footage is presented of two
highly-publicized still images - The South Vietnamese police chief who shoots a captured VC in the head,
and horribly burned, naked children running in terror down a road from a napalmed village. Especially
controversial is a sordid sequence in a brothel where we see two soldiers serviced by Vietnamese
prostitutes. The situation must be common to every occupying army in every war in history, but we've
never seen documentary images of that kind before - and not with 'our boys'. The message is that the
official line about defending freedoms to help our friends was a lie - our soldiers, including our
commanding general, see the Vietnamese as dirty subhuman gooks, unworthy of our blessing. The ultimate
blow comes when the film juxtaposes footage of unquestionably sincere grieving Vietnamese, against General
Westmoreland's assertion that Asians don't value life in the same way we Westerners do. The honored
soldier's best words about Vietnam are that, "It would be very nice, if it wasn't for the people."
Director Peter Davis takes us on a history of facts and perceptions, using a few feature movie clips to
augment his interview and docu footage. Interviewees speak their sincere thoughts and reveal their
inner feelings for cinematographer Richard Pearce's intimate camera. Shrewd editorial direction
bounces contradictory ideas off one another, and isn't above seizing visual opportunities,
as when a shot of a cigarette lighter in the brothel, is echoed by another cigarette lighter used
by a soldier to ignite the thatched roof of a peasant hut.
No docu or propaganda movie, truthful or not, is going to change the world, and Hearts and Minds
won awards and praise from liberals while being ignored by the country at large. If it were produced
in Canada or England, it probably would have been denied import, on account of its 'subversive'
content. Its producer fought for a year to get Columbia to release it, and finally had to buy
it back when they wouldn't. There is a lot of important, painful truth here.
Criterion's deluxe DVD of Hearts and Minds allows us to assess the validity of Peter Davis' work.
As a disc, it's uncut, beautifully transferred in 16:9, and immaculate.
The footage never looked better, and the sound, even the tracks recorded in combat, is extremely
clear. The only reason Savant saw the film when new is because I was working in the editorial shop
that was distributing it in 16mm, and Doug Haise (of
Medium Cool non-fame) brought a print
out to screen at home. The sound was very hard to hear under those circumstances.
The disc has a number of well-chosen extras. Peter Davis provides a commentary that explains his
motivations ("Why did we go there, what did we do there, and what did the doing, in turn, do to
us?") and gives useful background on the not-always familiar famous people being interviewed. He's
very forthright about his point of view, and proud of such journalistic bombshells as a French diplomat
on camera that the U.S. offered him nuclear weapons for use in Vietnam. Davis' story of his encounter
with General Westmoreland is especially good. A thick booklet reprints a number of essays on the war
and the film, from Judith Crist, Robert Brigham, George C. Herring, Ngo Vinh Long, and Peter Davis.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hearts and Minds rates:
Supplements: Commentary with the director, 32 page booklet of essays
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: June 29, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson