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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