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Davis does a neat job of laying out the absurdity in the US's
involvement in Vietnam. He does it mainly through the use of two
(1) Successive contrast, as it's called in the psychology of perception. If you stare at a black square for a while, then switch your gaze to a gray square, it looks white, not gray. In this movie Davis juxtaposes moments from interviews and newsreel footage to demonstrate how far removed high-level speeches can be from events as they take place on the ground. General Westmoreland, who, like General Douglas MacArthur, was another one of those giants in the field of Oriental psychology, explains to us that Asians don't place the same kind of value on human life as Westerners do. (He might have been thinking of kamikaze attacks from WWII.) Cut to a Vietnamese funeral full of wailing mourners. A coach gives a pep talk, screaming and weeping, to a high school football team in Niles, Ohio. "Don't let them BEAT US!" he cries. Cut to a scene of combat.
(2) Selective interviewing and editing. The Vietnamese seem to speak nothing but common sense and they are seen doing nothing but defending themselves -- and very little of that. The Americans that we see and hear are mostly divided into two types: phony idiots and wised-up ex-patriot veterans. Fred Coker is an exception. He's a naval aviator who was evidently a POW. He's clean-cut, intelligent, and articulate, and he's given a lot of screen time. This is all for the good because he's about the only pro-war character we see. He's been there and he still believes. He serves as a useful bridge between the pro-war idiots and the embittered anti-war Americans.
And of course the statements we hear on screen are selected for their dramatic value. One former pilot describes how he and his comrades approached their bombing missions -- for some of them it was just a job, part of the daily grind, but for some others it got to be kind of fun. And for him? "I enjoyed it." The amazing thing in propagandistic documentaries like this is not that the sound bites were selected. Of course they were, otherwise you'd have a dull movie of a thousand people from the middle of the road. "Dog bites man" is not news. "Man bites dog" IS news! No, the truly astonishing thing is that some of the interviewees actually SAID these things in the first place. Selective or not, here is the evidence on film. And how is it possible to "take out of context" General Westmoreland's disquisition on the Oriental attitude towards life? Or a vet smirking and saying he enjoyed killing Gooks?
I'm reminded of a scene in Michael Moore's first documentary, "Roger and Me." Moore is talking to a handful of rich wives who are on some Flint, Michigan, golf course, chipping balls. His camera rolls on and on while the ladies chat about the closing of the plants and the movement of jobs to cheaper labor markets. They love the area around Flint -- great golf courses, good riding country. And the newly unemployed? Well, says one of the wives, before a swing, now they'll have to get up and find a job. Poor people are always lazy anyway.
It's a shocking statement, and we hear similarly shocking statements throughout this movie. It all leaves a viewer with a sense of awe that anyone could be so unashamedly deluded.
I don't see any reason to point out the similarities between what happened in Viet Nam and what's going on as I write this. I wish our current leaders, practically none of whom served in the military let alone Viet Nam, could have seen this because it might have served as a useful reminder that war isn't REALLY very much like a high school football game.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "My country, right or wrong, is a thing no true patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober'".
Occasionally Hearts and Minds comes over as too obvious and aggressive, as
in the shockingly unflattering edits of glib, racist Americans piled one on
top of another and the literal link the director draws between football and
war. (Then again, I'm 31 years old and just don't know how open such racism
was then, but the cuts from bigot to bigot are just brutal and perhaps it's
wishful thinking on my part to assume that the director was unfair.) Also,
it seems the communist NLF did no wrong that was worth putting in the film.
Instead the director concentrated on eloquent nationalist sentiments. I
happen to agree entirely with the assessment of the war shown in the film,
but even with my sympathies it's hard not to notice that this film that
concentrates so brilliantly on the suffering of real people before an evil
policy focuses almost solely on the crimes of the Americans and their South
Vietnamese allies. But maybe that was someone else's film to make and, at
that moment in time, the director probably felt that there was enough
coverage of NLF as just plain evil people. It's a small gripe about such a
mammoth film. Documentary is not Truth, no retelling of an event ever is.
Hearts and Minds is an unapologetically partisan film and is so much the
better for being honest about it.
I'm `oriental' myself. Well, `oriental' enough that I know all those slurs and dismissive comments would have applied to my family and me. It was absolutely eerie for me to see people from Gen. Westmorland down to Americans watching parades on Main St. who had nothing but contempt for the people that to this day many swear the US was trying to save.
I'm not sure how many times I've ever seen the victim of bombing express himself outside of this film and that's sad. How many people were bombed in the last century? Millions certainly. In the US we've become so accustomed to hearing that our foreign policy requires almost annual bombings somewhere on earth. Particularly during the Clinton years, punishing through air strikes became so routine that it barely merited news coverage. These attacks may not be as indiscriminate as they used to be, but how many people in our history did that one anguished man speak for as he wept about his family and his home?
The sheer carnage on display in Hearts and Minds made the whole war film genre seem perversely sentimental to me. It's seldom helpful to hold up fiction to docu-footage, but, in this case, any number of moments from Hearts and Minds makes otherwise impressive films like Apocalypse Now! and Platoon seem like acts of bad taste.
I'll admit up front that Peter Davis' documentary makes no effort to
show the carnage and torture sponsored and perpetuated by the Viet Cong
-- and the one substantial time it explores the way South Vietnamese
civilians were imprisoned and tortured by their own government (in huge
numbers, by the way), the film isn't very clear about who made these
arrests. It concentrates almost solely on the inhumanity and
pointlessness of our presence there in a pointless war which even our
leaders were unprepared to comprehend.
It's not "balanced" within itself, but given the day-to-day barrage of standard media coverage of the Vietnam war during the time the documentary was made, I believe the making of this film represented an attempt to "balance" the average American's knowledge of what was really going on and how misrepresented the war was by our government and even by the major media most of the time.
All that being said, it's a vivid, important part of the mosaic of American war records. The images are enormously powerful, and where occasionally Mr. Davis' juxtapositions seem overtly manipulative, he still is to be praised emphatically for collecting and assembling this material in such a courageous and uncompromising way. It is essential viewing because of the power of its collected imagery and the lessons about America that we still need to learn. 30 years after the Vietnam war ended, there are still too many essential ways in which that conflict is not understood....and the degree to which we cannot seem, as a nation, to learn from the lessons of Vietnam is only too evident in the manner and attitude with which our leaders have handled and carried on the American military action in Iraq.
Having read a lot of the writings of Vietnam vets over the years about this war, I'm tempted to say that this documentary doesn't go far enough to show the core of absurdity and tragedy at the heart of this war and the way it put young Americans into a hellish situation for no reason and then left them there to be a part of a morally ambivalent, politically and humanly misguided situation, forever disillusioning and haunting an entire generation. But if this film can help younger people to understand just the tip of the iceberg of the enormous tragedy of America's involvement in a pointless 10-year war, then it continues to be worthwhile.
The film itself does not provide nearly enough "backstory" for a student or younger person who did not live through the era. Peter Davis presupposes that the viewing audience knows a lot of things which we knew at the time but which is no longer general knowledge for many viewers. But as a part of an overall attempt (using various sources) to understand that war and its colossal ramifications to our country's self-image, and as a reminder of how easy it is to slip into a tragic imperialism masquerading as some other kind of naive political idealism, it's an essential and vividly effective document of the times for which we owe Mr. Davis a huge debt of gratitude. There is much to be learned from films like this -- including things which our leaders today don't seem to have learned themselves, despite having lived through the Vietnam era.
It's also important to remember that until the Vietnam war, and later Watergate (reminders of which resonate in the presence in this film of "Pentagon Paper"- leaker Daniel Ellsberg), Americans generally believed what their government told them, and didn't think Presidents lied. It may be difficult now to remember there ever was a time when we trusted our government not to be intentionally misleading us, and if Mr. Davis makes a conspicuous effort to emphasize the duplicity of Johnson and Nixon in this documentary, it's probably because it was such a new and unbelievable concept to the overwhelming percentages of Americans before the Vietnam era took place.
Peter Davis created one of the most moving accounts of the
Vietnam War and the attitudes at home when he produced "Hearts
The film looks unflinchingly at the nature of power and horrible consequences of war. It is very much a pro-peace film, but uses the people who were there to speak for themselves. It also seeks to probe deeper underneath the American psyche of the times and evolves into a historical document about the violent social rupture that happened between the fifties and the sixties.
In many ways, it feels like a punch in the gut to watch the film. So many ideologies are laid bear....so many were false or misleading.
In the end, the film leaves you thinking about the price of war - and who is given the task to bear that price.
Truly deserving of the Oscar it received - and worthy of repeated viewing.
There are certain subjects so horrendous and so important that
fictionalizing them, regardless of the good intentions of the film maker,
can only trivialize them. "Schindler's List", "JFK" and "The Deer Hunter"
come to mind.
Give me a good documentary any time, and this is one of the best.
It takes the silly rhetoric of our leaders and juxtaposes it with images showing the horrendous results of their short-sighted policies.
If you want to know what the VietNam war was really all about, (and why so many of us were against it,) skip "Apocalypse Now", "Go Tell the Spartans" and "Full Metal Jacket" and watch this one.
Very good piece on the horrors of war and the stupidity which causes them. Lots of good interviews with former gung-ho jarheads who are now armless, without legs, or sitting forever in wheelchairs. Several clips from interviews with politicos of the era in which one man even went so far as to admit the entire war was a gargantuan error: "I couldn't have been more wrong in my assessment of the situation" was his comment. We really are led by fools. Other footage showed the ravages of the Viet people themselves - not just a bunch of dinks - who lost homes, families, and entire villages. The most telling scene for me was of the 2 parents mouthing their patriotic "he died fighting for freedom" gibberish in defense of a useless war which took their son away forever. Maybe this was merely their own defensive mechanisms at work but it made them appear so painfully ignorant of what was going on around them. This should be viewed by all, especially those who were around at the time and remember all the conflicting emotions.
Peter Davis' Hearts and Minds does it's best to try and get both sides of the issue on America's military involvement in Vietnam, and like Bowling for Columbine the film can be accessible to an audience on each side of the coin (though with this film Davis isn't in front of the camera at all). This is perfectly filmed in the end credits sequence in which a march is being held for Vietnam veterans while the protesters line the adjacent streets. What makes the film all the powerful is that there isn't a bias going on to either side- while one scene will show a Vietnamese civilian being interviewed about how the devastation from the bombs have ruined his family and home, another will show prisoner of war George Coker explaining things to American children. In the end what gets Hearts and Minds to the level of great documentary film-making is that all of the footage of old speeches and old military movies, and all the interviews with various political figures and Vietnamese personnel, all add up to delivering an objective stance for the viewer. The facts of which are presented as such: America went into Vietnam, left their mark, and while America had two sides to the issue so did the Vietnamese, and that's what made the whole deal one of the most controversial topics of the 20th century. Overall, this is an intelligent and compassionate look at the effects of War in general. A+
I have never been so shocked and outraged before today when I watched "Hearts and minds". We are shown stunning images of the people of Vietnam suffering from a child crying for his father, from a wife tying to get into the grave with her husband, to two sisters pained by the death of their elder sister. We were shown images of brutality from the enemies of these poor people who had absolutely nothing to show for. Their houses were set on fire, we are even shown images of the Americans kicking a man in his privates and then being smashed in the head by their weapon. It was totally shocking! Americans sleeping with prostitutes and the image that will live with me forever, was that of an American soldier shooting a young man in the head with blood gushing out and yet the camera is still rolling. Don't these people feel any shame? You get American soldiers saying they enjoyed killing those people but after watching images years later of the pain and suffering, they felt regret. It's changed my perspective forever. Something that should not have happened in the first place.
Hearts and Minds holds much relevance for the post- Sept-11
Although this film concerns itself with the Vietnam War, it is really about war in general. It explores the reasons America behaves the way it does towards other countries and towards itself, without having to come right out and tell you. It is the old writers credo, "Show, don't tell." The film bears multiple viewings, and you discover something new every time. Anybody who has loved ones in the military, and anybody who is "involved" in politics will be interested in watching this.
The only fully honest movie or documentary I've seen on the Vietnam
War. Several movies show the suffering of U.S. soldiers who fought or
were wounded in Vietnam, or readily admit that the war effort was
flawed - e.g., former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara in "The Fog of
War." But none that I know of tell us what was really behind the war
and how it divided the country between the jingoist or conformist hawks
and the people of conscience who could not support such a bloody
Ne-colonial war of aggression - "aggression," not an honest "mistake"
that our media portray.
It showed the Vietnamese people in their humanity, patriotism, and incredible courage in the face of crucifixion by an utterly awesome U.S. war machine. Unfortunately, the documentary's message got lost or was never seen by millions of Americans who are still in denial about what Vietnam stood for - a denial that permits the kind of character assassination by the "swiftboat veterans" that may have cost John Kerry the election in 2004.
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