Monday, August 5, 2013

Hearts and Minds (1974)

          Years before Michael Moore started using the documentary form to launch broadside attacks against the political right wing, lefty producer Bert Schneider backed the creation of Hearts and Minds, director Peter Davis’ scalding examination of the Vietnam War from a multiplicity of perspectives. The Academy Award-winning doc is unapologetically polemical, because even though supporters of America’s involvement in Vietnam are given room to speak in the movie, they damn themselves with the ignorance of their statements. For instance, the jaw-dropping climax of the picture features General William Westmoreland, supreme commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, claiming that “life is cheap” to Asians—even as Davis cuts to heartbreaking footage of the funeral for a South Vietnamese soldier. In unforgettable images, the soldier’s young son wails in agony while the soldier’s wife tries to climb into her husband’s grave.
          Obviously, Davis moves far beyond journalism with these types of rhetorical choices, so it’s best to approach Hearts and Minds not as an objective overview of the war but rather as an essential record of why so many people were against the war. Davis makes his points by presenting several distinctive individuals and then juxtaposing their perspectives. The first major player is Lt. George Coker, a clean-cut Jersey boy shown receiving a hero’s welcome after his release from a long internment as a P.O.W. During this opening scene (and elsewhere throughout the movie), Coker echoes Westmoreland’s dehumanizing attitude, referring to enemy combatants as “gooks.” Meanwhile, ex-pilot Capt. Randy Floyd, a wheelchair-bound longhair, openly weeps when trying to imagine how Vietnamese parents must have felt when the napalm bombs he dropped from his plane killed their children.
          Employing montage with great dexterity, Davis forms a collage of archival footage and new material, essentially distilling the debate about the war into an intense 112-minute discourse. On one extreme are former government officials and soldiers who rehash the old “domino theory” justifications; on the other extreme are anguished vets trying to grasp the severity of their deeds and their injuries. In between these extremes are key figures such as Daniel Ellsberg. The famed whistleblower whose illegal release of “The Pentagon Papers” radically changed the American public’s attitude toward the war, Ellsberg methodically explains how his discoveries changed his attitudes. Like many others in the picture, he describes a gradual radicalization informed by mounting evidence that the war was not only unwinnable but fundamentally wrong—a political maneuver rather than a humanitarian intervention.
          One could argue that Davis overreaches during scenes in which he tries to identify the essential characteristics of the American soul that generate warmongering aggression; the merging of a rough high-school football game with a Lyndon Johnson speech about how Americans refuse to lose crosses the line into editorializing. But when Davis’ technique is true—which is the case throughout most of Hearts and Minds—he hits targets with incredible impact. The parade of interviews with physically and psychologically damaged veterans underscores how many young American lives were needlessly ruined by the war, and Davis’ footage of ordinary Vietnamese citizens describing how they ravaged by the war is enough to make any supporter of the conflict feel shameful. It’s probably impossible for contemporary viewers to imagine how powerful this material must have been during its original release, when all of these divisive issues were at the forefront of the national conversation, but Hearts and Minds has lost none of its ability to indict, inform, and infuriate.

Hearts and Minds: RIGHT ON


cosmo kidd said...

watched it the other day, this was a pretty good movie, thanks for making me aware that it exists. Same for the movie Jeremy! Great blog you got here, cheers!

NYCPaul said...
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NYCPaul said...

It's a terrific documentary. If somebody is going to stand there and damn themselves with their own comments, the filmmaker is within his or her rights to let them do it. I doubt Westmoreland then took a step back and humanized the enemy he was trying to portray as sub-human. He said it, and 40-odd years later, we're still appalled because the movie reveals his self-serving lie. I don't view this as manipulation.