CAPSULE: This is a film that is more than an evening's entertainment. It qualifies as a genuine historical document. Famous people have been inspired by it. Famous people have condemned it. But nobody doubts that it is an effective piece of filmmaking. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
A military is a machine. In wartime it is set in motion against an enemy. If it is functioning as intended the people who are doing the fighting are not making the moral decisions. They are following their procedures, collecting intelligence in a manner they have been told to follow, and they are killing in the manner they have been trained and ordered to follow. Commanders and non- military personnel far from the fighting generally make the major moral decisions.
HEARTS AND MINDS is a powerful documentary that was made by Peter Davis in 1974 to examine the Vietnam War in its last days. It is a potent film with many images that stick in the mind; some the viewer might prefer to forget. The film is being revived and re- released thirty-five years after it was made. The idea is that the same standards the film uses to evaluate the Vietnam War can be applied to wars in the Middle East. It would be foolish to say that the current war in Iraq is a repeat of the Vietnam War in a new setting. But certainly there are similarities in the two wars as striking that are as the differences.
It is probably true that every war the United States has ever fought has had fighting men who simply were not happy with what was going on. But the Vietnam War was something new for the United States. What made this war different from previous wars was advances in technology. In World War II soldiers groused in their foxholes, but almost none could send their complaints home to a wide audience. Technology was just not in a state that made it easy for the fighting man to express himself. The loudest voices commenting on the US participation in World War II were the US Government and Hollywood. And both had almost identical messages that this war was going to be the last war and the one that would set the world straight. The message was that the fighting men were doing the right thing to fight that war. And frankly I myself do not doubt that that message was substantially true.
By the time that the Vietnam War came along, the individual soldier's opinion was much more important. Any soldier might find his words on the 6:00 news being broadcast across the nation. The war was poorly run and probably with assumption and principles that were faulty. It is a little shocking to see Gen. William Westmoreland, one of the moral decision-makers of the war saying, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." But the opinions of the front line soldiers and the men who were actually fighting the war became important as they never had been in any previous war.
HEARTS AND MINDS examines the opinions of the people involved in the Vietnam War. As a bit of a polemic it concentrates mostly on people who were opposed to the American policy. Certainly the people against the war are shown in a much more favorable light than those who supported it. At the time of the original release of HEARTS AND MINDS in 1974 it was very strong stuff. There were few other documentaries that presented the contrarian view. This was then a unique and powerful film. Releasing it today, when the liberal documentary is in what will probably be considered its Golden Age, cannot help but deflate the film's impact. There were many effective documentaries made in the last two or three years. But director Peter Davis's hard-hitting style is still effective. This remains one of the best documentaries about the liberal reaction to the Vietnam War. The similarities of current conflicts to the Vietnam War will still be striking. But it cannot hope to have the strength and the individuality that it had 35 years ago. Contrasts between the Southeast Asia war and the Middle East wars cut against the film. But the classic films never really lose their power for the people who saw them in their first run or who remember the historical context of that time.
Davis start with selections from World War II films showing how public opinion was orchestrated, thought perhaps no more than other countries other countries manipulated their own people. The United States left that victory with a belief they could be a force that would control the future... for the good motives, of course. Davis takes us to a short history of Vietnam under the French after WWII and how when they gave up the United States took their place. Davis then interviews allies, soldiers, commanders, Viet Cong, and civilians caught in the middle. A bomber pilot tells how he just gets the plane to near where the bombing is to take place and then turn it over to the computer to actually drop the bombs. The film goes on for almost two hours showing many aspects of the war, but few really favorable to US side.
HEARTS AND MINDS won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974. A co-producer, Bert Schneider, accepted the award and read a telegram saying "Greetings of Friendship to all American People." It was from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace Accords. Later in the awards ceremony Frank Sinatra presented a disclaimer he had co-authored with Bob Hope saying "We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry that they had to take place this evening." Michael Moore calls the film the one movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker and calls it the best documentary he has ever seen.
Even after three and a half decades this film still will be controversial and still has a real impact. I rate HEARTS AND MINDS a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hearts_and_minds/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper