#315) Hearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by Peter Davis
Class of 2018
A modern trailer
As with all the documentaries I’ve covered, this post is a massive over-simplification of the events surrounding the Vietnam War. There is so much information out there about Vietnam, and “Hearts and Minds” is a good starting point, but don’t let this blog be where you get your information.
The Plot: There is no way one movie could distill the complexities of the Vietnam War into two hours. That being said, “Hearts and Minds” makes the best effort by highlighting the viewpoints of as many participants as possible, juxtaposed with footage from the frontlines. Among those interviewed are ex-POW Lt. George Coker, America’s Commander General William Westmoreland, army deserter Edward Sodwers, and the countless Vietnamese citizens whose lives were permanently damaged by the war.
Why It Matters: The NFR quotes praise from authors Frances FitzGerald and David Halberstam, but conversely mentions critics “from both ends of the political spectrum [who] chided [“Hearts and Minds”] as manipulative propaganda that oversimplified complexities.”
But Does It Really?: Manipulative? Sure, but what documentary isn’t to a degree? “Hearts and Minds” will never satisfy everyone’s opinion on Vietnam, but the film succeeds as a document of the moment. What unfolds is a war with no end in sight, but whose participants have enough hindsight to recognize the errors made by America. As a film, “Hearts and Minds” is equal parts captivating and sobering. Those of us who weren’t there will never understand what it was like to live in the chaotic mess of the Vietnam War, but “Hearts and Minds” permanently reminds us of one of the 20th century’s most horrific events. The film’s reportage, as well as its continued controversy, makes it unquestionably qualified for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: Peter Davis started as a writer/producer for CBS News’ documentary division. He was inspired by the release of the Pentagon Papers (which exposed our decades-long involvement with Vietnam) to make “Hearts and Minds”, his sole directorial effort. Fun Fact: Davis is the son of screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger, who wrote the scripts for two NFR entries: “Dance, Girl, Dance” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”.
Take a Shot: The film gets its title from Lyndon Johnson, who said of the Vietnam War, “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.”
Seriously, Oscars?: “Hearts and Minds” almost didn’t get released when Columbia Pictures got cold feet. Producer Bert Schneider purchased the film back from Columbia, and secured a one-week Oscar qualifying run in L.A. in December 1974. Just three weeks before the Fall of Saigon, “Hearts and Minds” won the Oscar for Best Documentary. While accepting the award, Schneider read a telegram from Viet Cong Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi that praised the anti-war movement. Later that evening, Oscar co-host Frank Sinatra read a statement from the Academy saying they were “not responsible for any political references on this program”.
- Long story short, America started aiding South Vietnam (then French Indochina) during the first Indochina War in the ‘50s to prevent the spread of Communism. Once Kennedy took office in 1961 he escalated our presence in the war, which Johnson completed in reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, which may have been exaggerated as an excuse to send more troops. Thanks to an effective montage in the film, we see every U.S. President from Eisenhower to Nixon try to downplay our involvement in Vietnam.
- Despite his 6-½ years as a POW, Lt. George Coker states several times in the film that he would return to Vietnam to serve his country if asked. As of this writing, Coker is still with us, aiding fellow ex-POWs, and occasionally discussing his time in Vietnam.
- In a nice little bit of political foreshadowing, Ronald Reagan appears during the montage of Red Scare film clips. There’s also a scene from “My Son John” starting Robert Walker and Helen Hayes, both of whom have yet to make the NFR.
- One of the things that fascinated me was listening to soldiers and pilots discussing the thrill of fighting and the rush of energy that occurs in the midst of war. It’s a side we rarely hear about from our troops, possibly because we the public don’t want to acknowledge the shades of gray that come with war. This segment is immediately followed by Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, two elderly Vietnamese sisters who lost their family and their jobs in the bombings.
- If nothing else, this film helps illuminate the Vietnamese perspective of the war, especially for us “ugly Americans” who only know the war’s main bullet points. Interviewee Diem Chau refers to Vietnam as not only a civil war, but also “a war against American imperialists.”
- And now a montage of Hollywood’s horrible mistreatment of Asians and Asian stereotypes. The shrewdest clip is from “Road to Hong Kong” featuring Bob Hope, who shows up later in the film making a tasteless joke during a gala dinner for rescued POWs.
- Davis not so subtly suggests that American football culture is responsible for our over-enthusiastic pro-war mentality. No amount of verbose John Facenda narration can spin that one.
- Another gray area: war-profiteers in Vietnam. I did not realize how many American corporations opened branches in Vietnam during the war.
- Among the anti-war vets interviewed is Robert Muller (no, different spelling), who was left paralyzed during the war. He later founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.
- Production of “Hearts and Minds” took place while Nixon was still in office, but released a few months after his resignation in August 1974. I’m sure this gave the film an additional layer during its initial run.
- I think what I’ll take away from “Hearts and Minds” are the images of the Vietnamese effected by the war: the innocent bystander getting shot in the head by an American soldier, the father clinging to his dead daughter’s shirt, the grieving woman trying to be buried along with a soldier, and actual footage of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl made famous by this intense photo of her being burned by napalm. Miraculously, she survived this, and is still alive, albeit permanently traumatized by those events.
- Among those credited as part of the film’s sound team is Barbara Kopple, just a few years away from her Oscar-winning, NFR-inducted documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.”