Judge Clark Douglas' heart and mind were certainly affected by this film.
Our review of Hearts And Minds: Criterion Collection, published September 2nd, 2002, is also available.
"We weren't on the wrong side. We were the wrong side."
The Vietnam War has always been an emotionally-loaded subject, but I don't think I've ever seen a film as passionately angry about the war as Peter Davis' Hearts and Minds. That's almost certainly due to the fact that Davis created the film as the war was still raging on with no end in sight. Davis conducted interviews and gathered footage throughout 1972 and 1973, but for a variety of reasons, the film didn't actually make it into theatres until 1974. At the time, the film received a good deal of praise from left-wing critics and was loathed by many others (Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope denounced the film after it won Best Documentary at the 1975 Academy Awards), but it was ignored by a pretty sizable portion of the viewing public. Even so, its raw power is difficult to deny.
There are so many overwhelming, emotionally distressing images presented throughout Hearts and Minds: a police officer shooting a man in the middle of the street, burned children screaming and running through the streets, horribly wounded Vietnamese citizens crawling along the sidewalk, sobbing women confused by the senseless violence around them—the list goes on and on, and Davis savagely separates these moments with talking heads speaking about the war in lofty, philosophical terms. The most appalling figure we hear from is General William Westmoreland, who commanded operations for a large portion of the war and seems to regard the Vietnamese people as subhuman. "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient," he says casually.
I don't know how Davis convinced so many of his interview subjects to be so candid on camera, but there's a lot of stuff you simply wouldn't see in a documentary like this today. In one scene, a French diplomat openly admits that a member of the U.S. Government offered to give him two nuclear bombs if France would consider using them in Vietnam. In another disturbing sequence, we watch a pair of American soldiers cavorting with Vietnamese prostitutes, treating them as subhuman pieces of meat ("Hey, look at the hickeys I put on this one! They're where everybody can see 'em, so she can't hide 'em!"). It plays like the sort of scene you might see in a cynically-minded modern war movie, but to actually see real soldiers doing this sort of thing is somehow incredibly jarring.
There's a part of me that wants to call Hearts and Minds a masterpiece, because it grabs me emotionally on a level that no other war documentary I've ever seen has and because it presents a very damning case against the way America conducted itself during that time. However, there's another, more rational part of me which hesitates a bit, because I know the documentary doesn't play fair. On quite a few occasions, Davis intercuts his footage with sarcastically-inserted clips from old movies and propaganda reels, juicing up the material to give it a bigger emotional impact. Michael Moore has named the film as one of his biggest influences, and there are certainly moments in which Hearts and Minds offers a sneak preview of some of Moore's best and worst tendencies.
More concerning, however, is that Davis doesn't really play fair with the people he includes or the information he dishes out. He isn't interested in providing a comprehensive overview of the war, or in providing a balanced portrait of its pros and cons. This is not so much a critical analysis of the war as a cinematic protest rally, one which feels no shame in needlessly tipping the scales if it will convince a few more viewers that the war is wrong. The basic sentiment is worth applauding, but the manner in which Davis makes his argument bothers me a little bit. It's extraordinarily powerful, for sure. Maybe that's enough. Maybe that's all it needs to be. Maybe there's nothing wrong with making a cinematic protest rally. Still, I can't help but feel that the overall impact would have been stronger if Davis has been more willing to level the playing field.
Hearts and Minds: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, though this certainly isn't the sort of film which is going to serve as some sort of showcase disc for your home theatre system. As disturbing as some of the images are, I was wishing for less detail at times, but there it is. As with many documentaries, the quality of the footage varies wildly depending on the source material—some looks crisp and clean, some is soft and covered in scratches and flecks—but generally, the image is solid. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is similarly variable depending on the source material, but more often than not sounds crisp and clean. A handful of melancholy song selections are included which further boost the film's emotional impact (particularly "500 Miles"). There are technically only two major supplements, but both are huge additions: a detailed audio commentary with Davis from 2002, and over two hours of unused outtakes. You also get a booklet featuring essays by Judith Crist, Robert K. Brigham, George C. Herring, Ngo Vinh Long and Davis himself, plus two DVDs featuring the film and all of the extras.
While Hearts and Minds falls just short of being the definitive cinematic critique of the Vietnam War, it's certainly a strong, potent film which is guaranteed to inspire strong emotions. Flawed, but highly recommended.
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