Hearts and Minds: The Right Side of History

On Film / Essays — Jun 23, 2014

Peter Davis’s provocative, Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds, released to the American public in 1974, is that rare documentary whose truths and relevance have been underlined and amplified by the passage of time. The title is derived from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s noting, as he escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, that “the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” But Davis’s triumph is that he is even more concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans. And though its time setting is the ten-year foreign war that cost some 60,000 American lives and caused internal upheaval and a bitter aftermath, his work endures as a touchstone for our concept of Americanism, patriotism, and personal and political principle.

Controversy marked the public debut of the film, at the height of the international and domestic furor over our involvement in Vietnam. Davis had already come to prominence with the television documentaries Hunger in America (1968) and The Selling of the Pentagon (1971) when Hearts and Minds was greeted with enthusiasm at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1974. The film’s release in the United States was delayed. Threatened lawsuits and negotiations ensued, and a change of distributor led to its general release in March 1975. When Davis and his coproducer, Bert Schneider, received an Oscar for best documentary feature on April 8 of that year, controversy erupted again: at the ceremony, Schneider read a message of “greetings of friendship to all American people” from the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam delegation to the peace talks in Paris that were then going on. Later in the proceedings, one host, Frank Sinatra, read a statement written by another host, Bob Hope, disclaiming responsibility “for any political references.” It was greeted by boos and applause, and the controversy was fueled.

But what matters is that, over the decades, Davis’s work has become confirmed history, history that we must learn from—or be condemned to relive. Second only to his prescience is Davis’s directorial style, an evenhandedness in counterpointing the American and the Vietnamese experience. His is a thesis documentary, political and unashamedly compassionate, its righteousness and rightness its ultimate achievement.

The historic outline of our involvement in Vietnam is presented in newsreel clips and interviews gathered in 1972 and 1973 in that country, the United States, and Paris. The interviews provide hidden details of our support of the French rule of Vietnam and of our diplomatic interest in South Vietnam’s subsequent rule in the fifties and thereafter. Almost inadvertently, President Eisenhower offers a moment of truth, noting that if the French colonial interests were not taken up by us, “the tin and tungsten we value so much would stop coming.” And thereafter, it is the Cold War and anti-Communism that are the themes—and excuses—of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Throughout, there are the hawks and the doves, the military men, the advisers, the public figures, and the statesmen. Some recant their earlier hawkishness. Most memorably, Daniel Ellsberg explains his own change of viewpoint, recalling Robert Kennedy’s assassination and breaking down briefly, overcome with emotion at the thought of what might have been.

In counterpoint, Davis offers heartbreaking exposition of what the Vietnamese are enduring, the horror and the sorrow and the devastation; the rage and frustration of the victims; the corruption and debauchery in high places and low; the steadfastness of exiled leaders. There is the bewilderment of those who see themselves fighting a war of independence only to be besieged by a nation that won its own freedom from colonial rule barely two hundred years earlier.

The last is Davis’s quintessential concern, the question of how we, initially a nation of revolutionary freedom fighters, evolved into one of compulsive winners, from battlefields to football fields, literalizing its civilian urge to “kill the competition.” The issue is addressed: Colonel George S. Patton III describes his men as “reverent, determined, a bloody good bunch of killers.” A high school football coach tells his team to pray for victory, and another urges his to “win—kill ’em—win.”

Edited down to 112 minutes from some two hundred hours of footage, this taut film is crammed with incident and anecdote, spiced with popular music and relevant Hollywood movie clips. Particularly effective are three recurring interview vignettes. One is of a Massachusetts couple seeking a rationale—“Our system has worked better than any other”—for the loss of their son. Another is of a paraplegic veteran who bemoans his loss of patriotic fervor. The third is of a former bomber pilot telling of his transition from satisfied technician to guilt-ridden parent.

Beyond the scarred American survivors, there are the draft card burners; the “deserters” fleeing to Canada, with an amnesty debate to follow; the hundreds of marchers urging the government to “give peace a chance”—and the patriotic “Victory in Vietnam” parades.

There is another aspect of the American psyche that Davis explores, again using a point-counterpoint technique that contrasts statements by Americans with searing vignettes of the Vietnamese experience, to cumulative effect. General William Westmoreland notes that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.” A Native American veteran, “brought up to be a warrior,” with “lots of relations who’d been in the Marine Corps,” joined. “I could remember when people called me ‘blanket ass’ and ‘chief,’” but, simply put, “I wanted to go out and kill some gooks.” A returned Navy flier in sparkling whites, asked by a parochial school child what Vietnam looked like, replies, “If it wasn’t for the people, it [would be] very pretty.”

Davis is a master of counterpointing by quick cutting. Two sequences have become locked in my memory over the years, epitomizing his art. In one of near soft porn, two GIs are in adjoining cribs in a brothel, chatting as they fondle their Vietnamese whores. “If my chick at home could see us now,” one says with a snicker. Quick cut to another GI using a Zippo to inflame a thatched roof, some of his buddies using torches, others herding old people, women, and children away from their huts, a few striking young men to the ground with rifles. In another sequence, a young Saigon businessman in his office describes himself as “a Johnny-come-lately, as far as war profiteering is concerned,” and talks of his agglomeration of American business franchises in anticipation of peace. Quick cut to what, for a second or two, looks like a factory worker polishing pink plastic. He turns, and we see that he is a technician in a veterans’ hospital, fitting a patient with a prosthetic leg.

In effect, Peter Davis holds up a mirror to our national conscience, forcing upon us an assessment of our own immoralities and a probe of the values that created them. He does so with the total engagement of our hearts and minds.

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Hearts and Minds.