Hearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible. We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.
Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history. Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians. It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided. It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades. This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.
Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights. Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off. He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him. Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975. My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across. These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
What I Liked:
- Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
- People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.
- The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades. We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.
- Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc. We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
- Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire. Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
- Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them. When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.
What I Didn’t:
- The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents. Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
- I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.
Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government. It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period. It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.