Film review: “Hearts and Minds”

One of the most powerful movies I watched in my first year of college was Peter Davis’ academy award-winning 1974 documentary of the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. My review of this movie is so long that it requires its own post.

According to the 2001 DVD Commentary, Davis made Hearts and Minds to explore—if not necessarily answer—three important questions: “Why did we [the US] go to [war in] Vietnam? What did we do there? And what did the doing in turn do to us?” With this documentary, Davis examines the propaganda of the US government and the military, and compares it to the stories of pro- and anti-war individuals in the government, the military, and in Vietnam.

Personal Reaction: I found Hearts and Minds a strong, moving look at a war that ended a decade before I was born. In interviewing many of the people “in the know”—American, Vietnamese and one French—Davis uncovers some very disturbing truths about the Vietnam War.

The film is awfully unsettling. There’s some nudity and moderately graphic violence, but the real impact is emotional. Hearts and Minds displays the full horror of war and what it does to its victims, American and Vietnamese. It’s sickening, and—especially in light of the fact that we’ve apparently learned absolutely nothing from the experience—quite depressing, too.

However, I felt that Hearts and Minds, unlike many other media I’ve been exposed to over the years, had a definite and legitimate reason for being sad and depressing. Davis and his crew depict the true nature of the Vietnam War which—as with all other wars—includes a sickening amount of terrible, needless suffering. To do anything else would be to play the mainstream media’s game of sugarcoating the conflict and giving the audience the false impression that “hey, things aren’t so bad.” Davis tells the truth in this documentary, and in war the truth is often a very ugly thing.

The film has been criticized as anti-American. Certainly, it is very critical of the war, and the reasons (stated and unstated) for perpetuating it. However, there’s a quote from Clarence Darrow that goes: “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.” Another quote, attributed variously to Thomas Jefferson, Howard Zinn, and a past President of the American Civil Liberties Union says: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” When, as in Vietnam, the government and the military go against the best interests of the people of the United States, then resistance is the pro-American course of action.

There’s an interesting segment near the beginning of the film depicting anti-communist propaganda. During the war, of course, the government portrayed the Vietnam conflict as freedom-loving Capitalists versus tyrannical Communists, since they couldn’t be honest and portray it as freedom-loving Vietnamese against imperialist Americans (which, granted, is also an obscene exaggeration and oversimplification, but one with a better anchor in reality).

In his commentary, Davis makes it clear that he is not a communist (he needn’t have been quite so emphatic about it, if you ask me) and that he has many differences of opinion with the communist movement (which is okay, so do I). However, he points out how the government used near-fanatical anti-communist propaganda to discredit its critics.

One of the ways the people in power have of defending their unjust and immoral actions is by painting one opponent group as vile, heartless monsters who have sunk so far into their depravity that they should not even be considered human beings. They have no motivations except to do evil, no human qualities, no psychology … they’re just evil. The ones in power then accuse anyone who opposes them of being a member of that group.

In portraying anti-communist propaganda, Davis is not throwing his support in with the communists, but drawing the audience’s attention to this very phenomenon. Today the words “socialist,” “terrorist,” and even “Muslim” are more in vogue than “communist,” but the essential nature of the phenomenon remains unchanged.

Hearts and Minds is not an enjoyable movie by any means, but there is very much to appreciate about it. Peter Davis is, among other things, a master of irony. In one scene, for example, Davis interviews an American couple who lost their son in Vietnam. As the father extols the leadership of President Nixon and his “team,” the caption “Filmed Early in 1973” (in other words, at around the same time as Watergate) appear near the bottom of the screen.

The most successful bit of irony by far, though, is two heart-wrenching scenes of Vietnamese mourning their loved ones, followed by a clip from an interview with General William Westmoreland, commander of all US military forces of Vietnam from 1964-68, saying “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.”

In the commentary, Davis reveals that he has received a lot of criticism for placing Westmoreland’s speech where he did. I don’t think he could’ve found a more appropriate place for it. And while it certainly doesn’t reflect kindly on William Westmoreland, I don’t see it as condemning him either. In this scene, he is merely the mouthpiece through which the prevailing Western governmental view of East Asians voiced itself. Westmoreland, at least, has the honesty to give voice to the paradigm he follows, instead of preaching one ideology and practising another.

To put it another way, this sequence is not incredibly powerful because it exposes Westmoreland as a flawed human being, but because it exposes the American leadership as operating under a flawed worldview.

The commentary, as you may have deduced, is full of additional insight. For instance, while Davis was driving General Westmoreland to the place where he’d agreed to have the interview, Westmoreland brought up Davis’ previous documentary The Selling of the Pentagon. Westmoreland said that he’d heard the film was “dishonest … inaccurate … unfair,” all of which Davis denied. After Davis repeated that it was “accurate, honest, and fair,” Westmoreland said: “All right then, we’ll do the interview.”

Davis points out that he hadn’t proved anything to Westmoreland, he’d only denied any wrongdoing. According to Davis, in the military, “you do that three times and they take your word for it.” So, when they originally investigated the My Lai massacre, the soldiers told their commanders three times “it didn’t happen,” and that became the military’s official policy on the My Lai massacre until the press proved otherwise. And this, Davis explains, is how the military works.

In addition to the ever-insightful commentary, the 2001 DVD comes with a nifty booklet containing four or five essays, offering even more insight into this astounding movie, and its subject matter.

Possibly the most depressing aspect of this film is watching it here and now, in the United States in the early twenty-first century*, and realizing just how little we’ve learned from this horror. Towards the end of the film, interviewee Randy Floyd says he thinks Americans are trying to forget the lessons of Vietnam. Twenty years later, with all the wars, drone strikes, and similar bullshit the USA is involved in, it’s quite obvious that the attempt has been very, very successful.

*I last watched the film in 2008.

Unfortunately, in one respect at least, some people in the United States have learned the lessons of Hearts and Minds. The military now keeps a much tighter leash on the press corps, insuring journalists and their crew stay with the soldiers at all times. While this may possibly be safer for the journalists and heighten their ability to see the wars from the soldiers’ point-of-view, it also makes it much easier for the military to prevent them from getting anybody else’s side of the story. (Hey, the “enemy” has a point-of-view, too. So do the civilians who inevitably get caught in the crossfire.)

Bottom Line: An emotionally harrowing movie, but with very good reason. If you can stand to sit through it, I heartily recommend doing so.

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Film review: “Boycott”

A couple years ago, as part of a class on nonviolence, I watched a 2001 HBO docudrama entitled Boycott, and wrote a review of it on my livejournal, which I’ve decided to share over here.

Boycott tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr., the Montegomery Improvement Association (MIA), and their historic thirteen-month bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks for failing to give up her bus seat to a white person. The film, based on a book by Stewart Burns, stars Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King, and Terrence Howard as Reverend Ralph Abernathy.

One of the key things to understand about Boycott is that it’s a docudrama. That means, as my teacher explained it, that they have to cover all the main points, and beyond that, balance historical accuracy with dramatic necessity. They have to relate the historical facts of the story while still keeping it engaging and exciting. Which, to give the devil their due, the movie manages spectacularly.

I’ll get back to the story in a moment, but first I want to emphasize that because the film is a docudrama rather than a documentary, the details of the events portrayed should be taken with a grain of salt.

That said, the movie does contain certain historical facts that are contrary to some present misconceptions. For instance, there is (apparently) the myth that Rosa Parks was just a little old lady with tired feet who didn’t want to get up. In fact, Ms. Parks was already connected to the civil rights movement, and was at the time serving as secretary of the Montegomery chapter of the NAACP, which the film mentions. It also shows that Dr. King was basically conscripted into leading the MIA.

The story presented in Boycott is nothing short of breathtaking. The courage, commitment, ingenuity, and moral strength of the characters shines through in every scene, as they work tirelessly to hold their people together and maintain the boycotts, despite several underhanded tricks employed against them by the city.

The historical details sacrificed for the sake of story pay off in an electrifying narrative, packed with as much excitement and suspense as any action movie—and a great deal more heart. The climactic scene, with Dr. King and the other protest leaders turning themselves over to the city authorities to be arrested (one of the reasons for the Civil Rights’ movement’s success was that it overloaded the prisons) has almost palpable impact.

This is not just a movie for students of black history, or the civil rights movement, or Martin Luther King Jr.. It isn’t even just a movie for students of U.S. history or nonviolent movements (although it is an excellent resource for all of the above). It is a movie for the entire human race.

Personal Reaction: Don’t let my impeccable impartiality fool you into thinking I wasn’t utterly enchanted by Boycott. I was deeply moved by it, and touched, moreso than movies where the hero goes out to make the world a better place by killing a lot of unpleasant people who just happened to get on the filmmaker’s bad side.

The movie’s setup deserves a mention. Unlike typical American films these days, it does not work hard to introduce the audience to the characters and the plot, and it leaves many details for the viewer to guess about or intuit. This can get a little irksome (at least, for me it can) but the story remains largely coherent, so not much is lost.

The filming style is somewhat unorthodox, blending modern color footage with black-and-white footage and even (I’m pretty sure) some archival black-and-white footage, presumably to strengthen the sense of the historical.

As a final note on production details, Boycott features a beautiful soundtrack of songs that may have been specifically written for the Civil Rights movement.

And now for a few notes on characters:

Even someone as undereducated as I can tell that Jeffrey Wright looks nothing like Martin Luther King, but when he opens his mouth to give a speech, you know how he got the role. I dare say Mr. Wright’s delivery of fiery, inspirational rhetoric would make the good Reverend King proud. Beyond the soapbox, Mr. Wright’s portrayal of a committed Dr. King, struggling against outside opposition and his own doubts is highly compelling. I don’t know how well Mr. Wright’s Dr. King succeeds as a realistic depiction of a genuine historical character, but as a cinematic character he succeeds very well.

Terrence Howard’s Reverend Ralph Abernathy makes a good counterpart to Wright’s King. It would be interesting to make a study of the two characters’ oratory style as presented by the film.

Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King is a nice blend of familial anxiety and progressive commitment. According to our teacher, he had occasion to discuss the movie with Ms. King before her death in 2006. He reported that she was not entirely happy with her portrayal in this film, and this is somewhat understandable. The Coretta King of Boycott comes across as little more than the wife of Martin Luther King, rather than a talented activist in her own right, which is a shame.

The last character I want to discuss is E. D. Nixon, as portrayed by Reg E. Cathey. Again, I don’t know the accuracy of the portrayal, but as a character in a story, Cathey’s Nixon is an unequivocal success. For some reason, I tend to gravitate most strongly to a side character in a given story. In Boycott, it was E. D. Nixon. Here is a man who is depicted succumbing to utterly human failings and then rising above them. When the city puts out warrants to arrest the leaders of the boycotts, it is Nixon who declares that they should not try to evade the warrants like criminals, and it is Nixon who first goes to the police station to turn himself in when the warrants go into effect.

Boycott features many more characters from the Montgomery bus boycott, whom I will not address in detail here, but who also played their part in making the movie a success.

There was an interesting incident midway through the boycott, when one of its leaders notes that the bus companies are going broke and willing to settle, but the city won’t let them. Let all my fellow leftists who think only Big Business oppresses the people take note.

One of the pitfalls of a standard documentary (it seems to me) is that they tend to give a certain air of inevitability to the events they portray. In previous accounts of nonviolent resistance I’ve seen, all events presented were those that, ultimately, reinforced the movement. Some negative aspects were mentioned, but only in passing.

Boycott however, gives one some sense of how just how hard the MIA’s members and the rest of Montgomery’s black community struggled to end the segregation. Though some of the city’s attempts to discredit and/or break up the boycotts may be fictionalized, they give the viewer a powerful sense of the danger not just to the individuals involved, but to the movement itself. Their success was not a foregone conclusion from the first time the boycott began. There were many times when the movement could have floundered, or the city could’ve gotten the best of it. The fact that this did not happen only makes the boycott’s success that much more powerful.

Bottom Line: Not the most fantastic film I’ve ever seen, but only because certain things I particularly like are beyond its’ scope, rather than it doing anything particularly bad. Highly recommended.