Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds

Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds was arguably the most controversial American documentary film of the 1970s. Long before the Vietnam war was set to the music of The Doors and long before Michael Moore brought personal and humorous agitprop films to the mainstream, Davis used his lens to examine the myriad ways in which the United States took a wrong turn in Indochina—conveying a searing message without uttering a single word himself.

Davis feels no need to cast himself in his doc, á la Moore, running around like a medieval knight in search of justice. He simply points and shoots. And it works. The resulting material is some of the most powerful stuff about the Vietnam War you’ll ever see.

The film begins in the early 1950s. The French are fighting a war against anti-colonial forces in Indochina and their US allies are footing a huge chunk of the bill (78% in 1954). Though the government will continue to lie and lie about its involvement, the American population—still giddy with their emergence as an international superpower in the wake of World War IIand desperate to contain the spread of Communism in Asia—will stick their head in the sand until the late ’60s. When Lyndon Johnson tells Americans that the North Vietnamese have launched a “deliberate attack” on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, they believe him and approve a massive escalation of engagement in Vietman. It’s a lie of course, but that was back when a President could get away with lying to its people. (Wait a second…)

Davis features interviews with everyone from General Westmoreland and pro-war vet Lt. George Coker to Clark Clifford, Johnson’s now-repentant Secretary of Defense, and former Vietnamese President General Khanh. He also brings his camera into Vietnamese villages, capturing the reaction of coffinmakers under great duress, and fathers who have lost homes and children. A master of juxtaposition, Davis places Westmoreland’s infamous proclamation that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same price on life as the Westerner” directly beside images of children mourning the death of their father. Soon after, we see images of nine-year-old Kim Phuc after fleeing her village after a napalm attack (images made famous by Nick Ut’s photographs).

Davis is clearly no war sympathizer. But Hearts and Minds is an elegant doc that never pulls away from its interviewees or subjects. We never feel like words are being taken out of context, because shots are held and issues are fully fleshed out. To those for whom Vietnam has become a series of cultural references as opposed to a real war, Hearts and Minds is essential viewing.

More recently, Davis has covered the Iraq War for The Nation. His most recent book, If You Came This Way: A Journey Through the Lives of the Underclass was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. There’s no better guide to the parallels of Vietnam to the current morass in Iraq. Davis will be introducing Hearts and Minds at Cinematheque Ontario this Saturday, October 14.

Hearts and Minds screens as part of the Cinematheque’s Inextinguishable Fire: The Vietnam War programme on Oct. 14 at 6:30 p.m.