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Hearts and Minds
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by Lybarger

"It’s Michael Moore’s favorite documentary. See it anyway."
5 stars

It’s been nearly 34 years since director Peter Davis’ Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” won Best Documentary Oscar at the Academy Awards. The win proved controversial.

Producer Bert Schneider read a congratulatory note from the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris Peace Accords. Frank Sinatra countered by reading a note from Bob Hope that read, “The academy is saying, ‘We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.’” A chorus of loud boos and cheers ensued.

It made the later reception for Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” seem passionless and subdued in comparison.

The war the film chronicled is long over, but the movie’s power has not diminished with age. As someone who was only a child during the period, the film demonstrates why the war was so divisive in this country and why the mistakes of the past can be repeated even when we do remember them.

Davis and Schneider worked with a budget of around $1 million, so they were able to cover the conflict from several perspectives. From hawkish National Security Advisor Walt Rostow and General William Westmoreland to war detractor Daniel Ellsberg to frontline American soldiers to ordinary Vietnamese who lost their homes and their loved ones to both sides of the conflict.

Shortly after the film begins, President Johnson says that the real battle for Vietnam will be for the “hearts and minds” of its people. As the movie progresses, we discover that Johnson and his predecessors weren’t just trying to persuade the Vietnamese about the merits of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Through a series of several chilling movie clips from the 40s and 50s, we see how the conflict was sold to America.

When watching sequences from 40s wartime musicals, Davis implies that the same mindset that enabled us to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese didn’t serve us well in Vietnam.

Propping up regimes (the South Vietnamese and the French colonialists before that) that can’t stand up on their own is vastly different fighting off invaders. Davis even includes footage American Revolution re-enactors, where the performers unknowingly explain the parallels between the founding of the United States and the war in which they were then engaged.

The Vietnamese witnesses explain how the Domino Theory, which suggested that one-by-one countries would fall to Communism as if it were an infectious disease, didn’t really apply to Vietnam. Having fought against the more populous Chinese for centuries, they had a habit of resisting anyone who tried to invade them. They were not passive dupes.

Davis manages the important feat of respecting the frontline American soldiers while damning the war. Some of the most moving footage in the film comes from veterans describing how the war affected them. In an effective touch, Davis simply lets them speak for extended periods of time before gradually pulling the camera back to reveal that the speaker has lost limbs or is sitting in a wheelchair.

“Hearts and Minds” effectively crosscuts between two fighter pilots recounting their experiences flying bombing runs with reactions from Vietnamese people who lost homes or relatives in attacks that appear to have had dubious military purpose. While the pilots may not have witnessed what happened to their targets, both later paid a price. One is now haunted by his own actions, and the other spent six years in a hellish POW camp dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The most haunting sequence in the film features a Vietnamese family grieving at the funeral of their father. His widow’s grief is so intense that she has to be held back from diving into her husband’s grave.

Davis then cuts to General Westmoreland lamenting, “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” After seeing the footage that preceded the remark, it’s hard to tell if he’s lying, delusional or only understood the enemy from staring down the barrels of their guns. No matter the explanation, the words are as harrowing as the images that preceded them.

While “Hearts and Minds” has been available on video and DVD before, the new re-release is worth catching now because it’s made from restored prints that enable viewers to properly see the rich color photography of Richard Pearce for the first time since the film’s initial release. Pearce later went on to become a first-rate director in his own right with movies like “Heartland” and “A Family Thing.”

As a proud American, I can say our merits don’t need a lot work to explain. We can thank the First Amendment that films like “Hearts and Minds” that criticize our government’s actions can get made and can influence debate.

The one point I picked up from Davis’ film is that maybe future conflicts can be avoided or fought more effectively if we spend less time trying to persuade or destroy our antagonists and more time listening.

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originally posted: 03/22/09 06:20:17
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User Comments

4/01/10 Phineas TOTALLY one-sided,hateful,Marxist propaganda.Bert Schneider's a Communist Devil. 1 stars
6/25/09 brian Every Vietnamese in this film is anti-America, so who are those who became American? Bias. 2 stars
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  01-Jan-1974 (R)
  DVD: 25-Jun-2002



Directed by
  Peter Davis

Written by

  Georges Bidault
  Clark Clifford
  George Coker
  Daniel Ellsberg

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