“Look, they’re focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film.” Responding to the camera following him across a broken, muddy plot of land where the remains of a home lean into the rain, a Vietnamese villager — wearing pith helmet and parka — disdains the effort to document his loss. Among the many self-aware moments in Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds, this one is particularly tragic. There is no distinguishing between invasions for him, as he remains resilient and proud, as a neighbor leans down to pick up debris in the background. The camera pans with his movement to find another man, who stares directly into the lens as he puts a cigarette to his lips. Affronted perpetually, all they can do is watch those who watch them.
Now digitally restored and remastered, the insightful, emotional, and excellent Hearts and Minds remains an agonizingly timely film. Notorious now for the tumult during the 1975 Academy Awards ceremony, during which Davis noted the “fall” of Saigon in his acceptance speech and Frank Sinatra later read a letter “from the Academy,” stating, “We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.” But Davis meant to make those references, on that night and in his film, which condemned U.S. policy in Vietnam, granting interview time to U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, parents of dead GIs and Vietnamese refugees, Dan Ellsberg (who released the Pentagon Papers), National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, and General William Westmoreland, commander of American military operations in the war from 1964 to 1968.
That Westmoreland is perhaps best remembered for offering here that most self-damning opinion, “Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient” — just before the film cuts to a wailing mother throwing herself on a grave, overwhelmed by grief — is part of the film’s legend. A documentary that made no effort to seem “objective,” in expressing its outrage against the war, Hearts and Minds was hailed as “one of the most all-encompassing records of the American civilization ever put into one film” by the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby and criticized by Roger Ebert because it “sometimes looks like propaganda…We’re bludgeoned by the point of view, we don’t like the feeling of manipulation we get.”
The movie suggests that American aggression is deeply rooted in a masculinist self-image (linking patriotism with football, racism in The Mask of Fu Manchu with rationales for the war, that is, the “good” and infantilized/feminized South Vietnamese needed U.S. guidance and the evil “gooks” needed to be decimated), and granted an early forum to Bobby Muller, future founder of Vietnam Veterans of America. It effectively pairs off two veterans with opposite perspectives: former POW George Thomas Coker (who maintains a rigid military demeanor, and is introduced to an auditorium full of students by a nun: “If it wasn’t for the people,” he tells the children, Vietnam “would be very pretty”) and Randy Floyd, who sits on his front porch in rural Oklahoma as he describes his 98 bombing missions. “The risk of dying,” he recalls mournfully, “makes it thrilling. I had a lot of pride in my ability to fly.” As he speaks, the film cuts back to a small home in Vietnam, where two women, Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, remember the devastation of those missions. “I am so unhappy,” one cries, as Coker reappears on screen: “You don’t have time for personal thoughts while you’re up there flying around.”
Such juxtapositions — in part a function of Davis’ unprecedented access to Vietnamese interview subjects — support Hearts and Minds‘ trenchant argument against U.S. imperialism, arrogance, and self-interest. It offers other images to critique the American methods: Sgt. William Marshall’s memory of the effects of napalm (“Post Toasties to the bitter, you dig?”), a couple of GIs behaving badly in a whorehouse, some stock Zippo footage, that is, soldiers lighting hooches on fire with their cigarette lighters. Young and ignorant, poorly equipped and trained, these GIs look abandoned and lost, victims of broader forces much like the populations they’re imposed on.
The film locates those broader forces in the American administrations, blundering their ways through decades of combat and escalation. It also targets exploitation by American companies (Coca-Cola, Ford, Esso) as well as those closer to home (an interview with businessman Nguyen Ngoc Linh gives him enough rope to hang himself, as he confesses proudly, “I’m a Johnny come lately as far as war profiteering is concerned”). Tracing the war’s acceleration, the film also notes increasing protests against it, Buddhist monks setting themselves ablaze in Saigon and demonstrations in the States. It features familiar landmark moments — Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem, Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for president in 1968, Nixon and Kissinger’s promotion of a so-called new policy of “Vietnamization.”
All of this sounds depressingly familiar alongside the ongoing wars in Iraq and now, perhaps especially, Afghanistan. The urgency of Hearts and Minds, its anger and its articulation, its insistence that effects of war be visible and its cogent analysis of connections among politics, media, and the military, all seem apt lessons for today.