Hearts and Minds
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Released in the United States in March, 1975, Peter Davis' Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds boldly probed the depths of a still-open wound. The war had barely ended, and the details of the Paris Agreement, which ultimately proved useless, were still being debated. When the movie picked up an Oscar a month later, there was protest from the Hollywood conservative elite, among them the evening's co-host Bob Hope. Twenty-seven years later, the film manages to evoke a similar degree of pain, even if it is only the pain of recall. Time has eroded its topical urgency, yet Hearts and Minds still resonates as a cautionary tale against unquestioned military might abroad and virulent patriotism at home. The documentary is clearly anti-war in both tone and content, but Davis studiously avoids hitting home any single point, preferring to argue his case through an oblique accretion of testimony and an almost poetic disregard for narrative cohesion. Free-associative in its approach to an already nebulous political dilemma, Hearts and Minds (now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection) refuses to impose clarity on what was and for many still is the most inexplicable period of recent American history.

The title comes from the now infamous speech by Lyndon Johnson in which the president declared that "ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there." Though Johnson was referring to the South Vietnamese, on whose behalf we fought Communist North Vietnam, Davis has taken Johnson's challenge as his own. His film appeals to our most primitive emotions as well as our highest intellect, linking these seemingly competing faculties through visual juxtaposition. Without the aid of a narrator, the movie alternates between eminent talking heads, stock footage, veteran testimony, and scarily, clips from corny Hollywood agitprop. It all forms a dense weave of sound and images that relies on us to connect the thematic dots. Though this is seldom an easy task given the film's tendency to delay counterpoints and to short-circuit any obvious dramatic momentum, repeated viewings will help the movie's general, if fitful, chronological semblance to emerge. Pinpointing the origin of our involvement in Vietnam in the post-World War II belief that "we could control the future of the world," Davis suggests that our policy of Communist containment spawned an altogether different and intractable monster at home, that is, the management of lies and cover-up emanating from the very top. Working with ace editors Lynzee Klingmann and Susan Martin, Davis assembles a montage of presidential speeches, from Eisenhower to Nixon, that implies that beyond masking a progressively hopeless situation, presidential rhetoric conspired to prolong the Vietnam War in a futile effort to bolster national pride and manipulate public opinion.

Davis' claims to journalistic impartiality seem disingenuous in light of such stacked testimony. If, as Davis states in the DVD liner notes, the Vietnam War holds a mirror up to us all, Hearts and Minds smashes that mirror to create a kaleidoscope in which facts and lies are refracted in a deceptive but dazzling arrangement. Foreign policy that may have seemed defensible at the time, like the uprooting of rural South Vietnamese to the cities, is leeched of all legitimacy when edited next to footage of the bombings used to carry out that policy. Complaints that Davis takes testimony out of context and rearranges crucial events are accurate to the degree that the film is edited around vague themes of the director's personal choosing. But Davis' intent seems less like malicious revisionism and more like egalitarian synthesis. The film acts like an equalizing force, giving commensurate play time to a farmer who has lost his daughter to air raids as it does to the commanders who ordered those raids. In its capacity as a work of journalism, Hearts and Minds embraces the less restrictive definition of impartiality that demands nothing more than an equal voice for all parties.

From the more than fifty interviewees, Davis has selected a handful of combat veterans to act as his informal, long-distance war tribunal. Deliberately divergent in their views but remarkably similar in their frayed, youthful obstinacy, they offer consensus-free commentary while reminding us that the war was fought in large part by inexperienced young men. They range from Navy poster-boy George Coker to fugitive Army deserter Edward Sowders. Some of them are missing arms and legs and are justifiably angry (William Marshall and Bobby Muller) while others emerged physically unscathed but psychologically shell-shocked (Randy Floyd). Accusations abound, but the movie reserves its sharpest scrutiny for George Coker and his unswerving faith in his country. A P.O.W who endured six years of imprisonment in North Vietnam, Coker returns home to the full celebrity treatment. "If I am a good solider, it is because the military made me one," he tells an exuberant crowd. He then says that he would go back, if so called upon. When asked by a student what Vietnam was like, he replies in perfect deadpan: "If it weren't for the people, it would be a beautiful country."

To the movie's credit, Coker comes off as a relatively harmless fount of ingrown patriotism. Far more sinister, the movie implies, is the cult of victory that permeates every inch of American culture, from the football fields where it is practiced to the churches where it is preached. Conditioned to win at all costs, youth are reduced to passive vessels for the warrior spirit. It's all vaguely fascistic, particularly during a Revolutionary War reenactment in which historical kitsch is paraded about like relics of a de facto national religion. As the movie's detached sense of irony darkens into shrewd cynicism, the purported difference between our country's rise from colonialism and Vietnam's own war against imperialism grows more suspect. Such racist double standards fueled protests at home, though judging by General William Westmoreland's insistence that "Orientals don't place the same value on human life as we do," most top-level officials remained defiantly impervious to the wave of counterculture rebellion.

Eventually, Hearts and Minds gets around to blaming everyone. Increasingly beholden to corporate influence, moneyed South Vietnamese are held responsible for enabling the likes of Coca-Cola and Ford to exploit their country for post-war profit. These local fat cats, seen power-lunching on what could be the national corpse, are as complicit (and mock-submissive) as the Vietnamese prostitutes seen earlier indulging a pair of horny American G.I.'s. Victim and aggressor are equally guilty. Davis finds a third party to implicate: himself. "You were there, too, with your damn cameras," one angry veteran says directly to us. While political officials such as Daniel Ellsberg and former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford are allowed to repent, Davis and his producer Bert Schneider acknowledge the exploitative nature of their documentary without condemning it. In his audio commentary, Davis describes how he and cinematographer Richard Pearce obtained permission to film the funeral of a South Vietnamese soldier. Their footage, viewed without Davis' commentary, is a primal scream against the senselessness of war; viewed with the commentary, it becomes a voyeur's object of fixation, drenched in equal parts guilt and fascination. "I wanted to include as much as possible a kind of self-consciousness on the part of the film and that we knew we were there, too, exploiting the Vietnamese with our cameras," says Davis. He concludes with a plea for a similar degree of self-awareness on the part of those who wield military power today. After nearly thirty years, the lessons of the Vietnam War seem, at best, partially learned.

Hearts and Minds is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer supervised by the director and the cinematographer. The disc includes commentary by directer Peter Davis. An accompanying booklet contains several printed essays about the film. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.