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The Hollywood revolution of the late '60s led by Easy Rider and its ilk, also freed the town's liberal creatives to make political films. Blacklisted two decades earlier, writer Abraham Polonsky returned to direct his first movie in 19 years. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler directed the influential Medium Cool, which still impresses with its on-the-spot documentation of police/protester clashes in Chicago.
One of the producers of Easy Rider would later co-produce Hearts and Minds, an acclaimed and influential anti-war documentary. An unflinching look at the Vietnam conflict backed by revealing testimony from key figures in government and the military, the film was strong medicine in 1974. After twenty years of confusion and official prevarications, Peter Davis' documentary offered a comprehensive thesis about the meaning of the war. The image it reflected of America differed from the one we had learned in grade school. Davis plays no editorial tricks and uses no 'gotcha' methods. Not only is the evidence of unwarranted aggression overwhelming, the words of our own commanding general reek of callous, patronizing indifference to the barbaric slaughter inflicted on the Vietnamese people.
Hearts and Minds is not a protest film and not a 'radical chic' work of political outrage. It ignores the celebrity sideshow of Jane Fonda and does not for a moment champion the Communist cause. Yet we soon reach our tolerance limit for political hypocrisy and a war machine that mauls a tiny country without any coherent military goal or strategy. The show gives a simple, short explanation for the war. The French don't want to lose control of a valuable colony, and the U.S. underwrites the suppression of Vietnamese self-rule for a piece of the action. When the French give up we take over, betraying our own puppet governors until President Johnson decides to fake a provocation as an excuse to send in troops.
The interviews refute practically everything we were told about Vietnam, from President Eisenhower forward. Vietnamese monks and intellectuals say that the venal, corrupt puppet government in Saigon inflicts false imprisonment, torture and murder on citizens it accuses of dissent. Farmers weep as they mourn families slain and houses burned, for vague strategic principles. A French diplomat claims that in the early 1950s the U.S. State Department offered him two atomic bombs to use against the Vietnamese rebels. We also get testimony from Washington advisor Clifford Clark, who insists that the war is important and necessary. Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg tries to explain that the foreign policy behind Vietnam is based on nothing but lies, and that all of our presidents since WW2, Democrats and Republicans alike, routinely lied to the American people. An American soldier jokes about tossing a Viet Cong prisoner from a helicopter, to encourage another prisoner to talk. Another solider states unconvincingly that he's unaware of any such activity occurring.
The capper is a quiet conversation with General William Westmoreland, whose belief in his racist statements borders on the delusional. After an hour delineating the mechanized mass slaughter that leaves the rural civilian population wailing in agony over their dead, Hearts and Minds cuts to Westmoreland matter-of-factly informing us that Orientals don't place the same value on life that we do. Life in their part of the world is cheap, he assures us. We shouldn't feel bad, he seems to say, because it isn't as if real people are being killed.
Hearts and Minds isn't afraid to burst America's illusions about its noble warriors. A pair of soldiers is shown being entertained by Saigon prostitutes, tainting the image of idealistic young patriots fighting for Freedom. War movies have traditionally glamorized fraternization in sentimental terms, but here we see the crude give and take of sex for sale. The film also de-mystifies two of the most traumatic news images from the war. One is the famous shot of a South Vietnamese casually executing a prisoner on the street with a small pistol. The victim's blood gushes like a fountain, straight into the air. The second is the awful news film of a napalm strike on a village. Naked children run down the road in shock and terror, with shreds of burned skin hanging from their bodies. Soldiers with the camera crew pour water on them from their canteens. The original B&W news photos of these incidents were genuinely disturbing. Seeing them play out on film, in sharp color, is nightmarish.
Made near the end of the fighting, Hearts and Minds also concentrates on what the Vietnam War has done to America. We see a military parade with angry words shouted at protesters, some of which are veterans. A veteran of bombing missions describes himself as a technician, who dropped bombs on victims whose faces he never saw and whose screams he never heard. The flier is then revealed to be in a wheelchair, paralyzed. A former college athlete, he lost his girlfriend and his faith in his country. We also see a Navy flier and long-term Prisoner of War making tours of schools, parades, women's meetings and a homecoming celebration. His depressing 'morale' speeches are hollow platitudes about how good American values instilled by Mom and Dad helped him to get the job done, to crush the enemy. "Vietnam would be very nice, if it wasn't for the people."
Elsewhere we're reminded of President Johnson's famous quote about victory being dependent on winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Hearts and Minds was considered a product of leftist Hollywood back in 1975. Producer Bert Schneider fought for a year to get Columbia to release it, and finally had to buy it back when they wouldn't. He and Peter Davis won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Several costly and frustrating wars later, the show no longer seems as radical as it once did.
The Criterion Collection's Dual-Format Blu-ray + DVD of Hearts and Minds gives us Peter Davis' long-form documentary in a fine presentation. Even the news film sourced for the show is in prime condition, and only a few older shots are in less-than perfect shape. The new interviews are also handsomely filmed.
Criterion's presentation includes many new extras. Peter Davis' commentary has been retained from the older (2002) Criterion DVD. While deciding what material to include, he would ask himself if a sequence addressed the questions, "Why did we go there, what did we do there, and what did the doing, in turn, do to us?" He also stands behind his interviews with General Westmoreland and the French diplomat who talked about the offer of nuclear weapons.
A large video gallery contains film outtakes and interviews not used, with presidential advisers Walt Rostow and George Ball, historians, political activists and General Westmoreland. Also included is a lengthy, fascinating interview with David Brinkley, in which the TV newsman gives his thoughts about the news coverage of the war and the responsibility of journalists not to editorialize events or hype them with added drama. Those guidelines have been completely lost in today's news, even on the national network level.
The insert booklet has essays and reprints from film critic Judith Crist and historians Robert K. Brigham, George C. Herring, and Ngo Vinh Long. All the extras are present on both the Blu-ray and DVD editions of the title. The arresting disc cover art is by Luba Lukova.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hearts and Minds Blu-rayDVD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.