WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT
So we're 25 years beyond the Vietnam War, and the whole episode retains a rotten-meat stigma, a haze of embarrassment and even guilt. Today, history books focus on the events and give little sense of the bitter political and cultural divisiveness that stained America's collective consciousness back in the early to mid '70s. It was an appalling war that you could watch on TV—political assassinations in the middle of bombed-out streets, burned children screaming and fleeing Napalm down country roads. It's no wonder that in the midst of such televised crimes against humanity, our government found it impossible to rally public support for the war.
Peter Davis' controversial Academy Award-winning film Hearts & Minds tries valiantly—in the midst of its liberal slant—to make sense of the unspeakably violent war in Southeast Asia. The film is composed of frank interviews with all kinds of key figures: soldiers as well as deserters, US government officials as well as Vietnamese officials, Asian businessmen and peasants. These wide-ranging voices are intercut with disturbing war footage, thereby providing a unique humanity to the savagery of the scene. We watch the war proceed over a period of years, through several US presidents, and we can't help but feel futility and anger that needless brutality continued, seemingly because of good ol' American pride and our age-old fear of the threat of Communism. (The film is unapologetic about its left-wing agenda, but it sure is persuasive.)
Davis expertly grounds his documentary in its story. Because it was filmed during the war, you'll feel particularly immersed in the proceedings, not distracted by needless after-the-fact narration but involved in the war as it inevitably—and frustratingly slowly—plays out. You're left reeling in amazement at the sheer human folly of the entire enterprise: How can living, feeling human beings find themselves drawn into an increasingly senseless predicament that so dehumanizes their brethren? In the end, you'll find Hearts & Minds both moving and sobering: As an indictment of American wartime political policy, it speaks volumes, and as a testament to the personalities involved, it's a saddening, frustrating, and enlightening document.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Criterion presents Hearts & Minds in an impressive anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Obviously, this isn't a film to compare to today's slick blockbusters, but considering the original wartime elements, this transfer is nothing short of amazing. Detail is exemplary, colors are accurate, and I noticed few, if any, digital artifacts. You'll notice plenty of film grain, but it somehow enhances the feel of the film. The print is remarkably clean.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby 1.0 mono soundtrack gets the job done. I was impressed by the fidelity of the sound elements and in no way expected any use of the surround channels.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The DVD's only extra feature is an insightful audio commentary by Davis. He talks at length about the making of the film, offering lots of background notes about the interview subjects. I found the commentary invaluable, particularly for the sense of history it provides to back up the film's painful subject matter.
I should also mention Criterion's thorough 32-page booklet, which provides a series of historical essays about the film and about the war.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Hearts & Minds isn't exactly a rah-rah piece of American propaganda—far from it. Instead, it's a documentary that reaches into the soul and tries to make sense, in human terms, of an American tragedy. Criterion's presentation is exquisite.