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When you've got them by the balls...
A region 2 DVD review of HEARTS & MINDS by Slarek
 
"If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are
very backward and primitive and they just make a mess of everything."
Lt. George Coker, asked by schoolchildren to describe Vietnam
 
"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the
Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient."
General William Westmoreland.

 

And these are just two extraordinary quotes from many – this is a film loaded with memorable, sometimes prophetic and occasionally outrageous lines. The trick is, of course, that none of them are scripted, but real opinions straight from the mouths of willing participants. I'll bet real money that with the release of the film and the passing of time, a few of them were given cause to look back and wince at their own words. Or at least I hope they would. But we live, once again, in interesting times.

With the documentary feature, and especially the political documentary feature, having recently enjoyed a popularity boom of late, the timing seems perfect for a cinema re-release (last year in the US) and DVD release of Peter Davis's extraordinary, ground-breaking film from 1974 examining the damaging effects of the Vietnam war on the American people. One of the only films about the conflict that was made and released before its conclusion, it has found renewed political relevance in post-Iraq war America, where 1960s fear of communism has been traded in for 21st century terrorist paranoia, prompting similarly polarised public and political attitudes and quotes as dogmatic, ill-informed and simplistic as any you'll find here.

But despite Hearts & Minds' strongly political standpoint, it never for a moment becomes a simplistic polemic. The above quoted remark from Lt. George Coker, for instance, delivered as a response to a question from a class of young and attentive students from his old school, may seem damning in isolation. But Cukor had recently returned home after seven years as a prisoner of war and appears trapped in a dreamily patriotic early-1960s time warp, even at one point talking of how America won the Vietnam war, seemingly unaware of what is happening around him. It's a similar story with the Emerson family, who talk about the loss of their son in combat – they are at all times treated with respect, with their son's decision to go to war never questioned or criticised, and only the father's devotion to the policies of the soon-to-be-disgraced Richard Nixon even hinting at a degree of patriotic naiveté on their part.

It's intriguing that Davis chose only to interview people who were or had been in favour of the war, which means that all of those presenting a critical viewpoint do so with the hindsight of personal experience. The technique is a persuasive and effective one: a native American talks of the absurdity of wanting to "go out and kill some gooks" after being the butt of extensive racism himself; an ex-pilot discusses the dropping of bombs and napalm as a technical exercise until he reflects on how he would he would feel if it were his own children being killed; a former marine talks about his conflict-inspired bloodlust, only for us later to realise that the war has left him confined to a wheelchair. Probably the most instantly engaging interviewee is young William Marshall, whose passion and street-talk delivery make him a most persuasive voice of protest, though his gripe is less with the war than the treatment of the returning soldiers. The real coups, though, have to be the disillusioned representatives of officialdom, of whom former Defence Aide Daniel Ellsberg delivers perhaps the film's most potent and famous quote: "We weren't on the wrong side, we are the wrong side."

There is no voiceover and only a minimal use of informative captions, but Davis delivers political body-blows through his sometimes brilliant use of editing and juxtaposition, repeatedly presenting what appears to be an even-handed view that is then subverted by the footage or interview that follows it. Thus an attempt to explain the inevitable thrill of carrying out a bombing raid, where the pilots are distanced from their victims and the air force technology is openly celebrated, cuts to shots of Vietnamese peasant farmers working with the most primitive of tools, very graphically emphasising the technological gulf that lies between the natives and the invading force. Elsewhere a shot of a Zippo lighter in a brothel, in which two American servicemen are availing themselves of the local girls in a scene that is startling in its frankness, resonates a few minutes later when what might as well be the same Zippo is used to set fire to the house of a Vietnamese family, who stand mournfully by as their lives and their home are destroyed with no more effort or concern than it would take to light a cigarette. Occasionally it is the very absence of editing where normally you would expect to see it – most notably on the shot of elderly Vietnamese sisters, one of whom has lost both her other sister and her home to American bombing, that holds long after the interview has finished – that proves most affecting, reflecting Davis's desire to focus precisely on the aspects that normal news broadcasts quickly pass over, the so-called 'dead air'.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how contemporary it feels, its use of editing, music, historical and even movie footage providing a clear lineage to the work of modern political documentary film-makers like Michael Moore, who regards Hearts & Minds as possibly the finest documentary of all time and has more than once cited it as the film that inspired him to become a documentary film-maker. This very fact will no doubt prompt the usual "If only Michael Moore would [insert critical bollocks here]" moans from the one-note naysayers, but Davis himself appears thrilled that a new generation of political documentary feature makers have taken up the torch. The parallels to Moore extend to the film's Academy Award win for Best Documentary, an event that went down in Academy history (as did Moore's notorious win) following producer Bert Schneider's reading of a telegram of friendship from the new Vietnamese government. This so outraged hosts Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope that they then made their own, hastily cobbled together speech of apology and allegiance, only to have Shirley MacLaine walk on and offer her support for Davis and his film. After the ceremony, Francis Coppola also spoke in the film's defence and later told Davis that he had watched Hearts & Minds "a couple of dozen times" in preparation for Apocalypse Now, a film Davis himself is a huge fan of. Davis himself is disarmingly modest about his very considerable achievement, but 30 years on Hearts & Minds remains a powerful, persuasive and unsettling experience, and still casts an awesome shadow over the present wave of political documentary works.

sound and vision

Well here's a thing. Knowing that the film was already available in the US as part of the esteemed Criterion Collection, I couldn't help wondering how this region 2 disk from Metrodome would shape up by comparison. Not that I have the Criterion disk, mind you. Well I have now, as such. Place the Metrodome disk in your drive, select 'play film' and the first thing you are presented with are the familiar Criterion Collection and Janus Films logos, which surprised the hell out of me I can tell you. From this I can presume that the transfer has been officially licensed from Criterion and is thus of similar quality, NTSC to PAL conversion notwithstanding (and this does create a few minor issues). As you might expect from such a pedigree, this makes for largely pleasing picture quality, especially given the various source materials used, from news footage to movie extracts to archive film and photos. The slight softness and film grain on some of the source material is never distracting, contrast is fine and the picture is largely clean of dust and damage. On the whole, a very nice job. The framing is aproximately 1.81:1 by my measurement, within a small black border which enlarges over the opening and closing credits. The picture is anamorphically enhanced.

Sound is Dolby 2.0 stereo and is clear and free of noise, with separation confined largely to the music score.

extra features

The Interview with Peter Davis (21:55) is non-anamorphic 16:9 and suffers from very fluffy sound, but the content is useful, putting a face to the man and providing information on his arrival to the project by way of his earlier CBS documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, his first major flirt with controversy. Davis outlines his approach to the film and its structure, and draws direct parallels between the conflict in Vietnam and recent US military action in Iraq. He also discusses the recent appetite for non-fiction films and bemoans the shallow nature of modern Hollywood dramatic cinema and the deadening effects of CGI (hoorah!).

The Commentary by Peter Davis is moderated by Time Out critic Nick Bradshaw and largely screen-specific, though some sequences do seem to have been spliced in from elsewhere in the conversation. Despite a couple of dead spots, this is thoroughly interesting stuff, providing longed-for information on how some of the footage was shot (the brothel scene in particular) and how much of the film was made up of library and source footage (only about 10-12%). Davis also provides a postscript on some of those interviewed, one of whom has become an activist of some note on a variety of issues. Particularly touching is the memory of the screening held in Vietnam some time after the end of the war that prompted one woman to say at the film's end "I hate you all over again," before giving Davis an emotional hug.

summary

It's interesting to read reactions to the film from a new generation of reviewers who quite probably have never been involved in active protest, some of whom have complained about the film's openly political standpoint and lack of balance. Which is, frankly, ludicrous. A word to the not so wise – there is no such thing as a completely balanced documentary, and it's just a matter of how clearly the film-maker expresses his viewpoint. You are always being steered in one direction or another. And even if complete balance were possible, the very concept of a political documentary with no political standpoint is oxymoronic. Hearts & Minds makes its viewpoint clear and does so to compelling effect.

If you don't have the Criterion disk or a multiregion player then this Metrodome release will do fine, especially as it is sourced from the same transfer and has its own commentary (Davis also provides a solo commentary on the Criterion release). Either way, this is one of the most important and affecting examples of political documentary in modern cinema and is, as Michael Moore so rightly says, "required viewing."

Hearts & Minds

USA 1974
112 mins
director
Peter Davis

DVD details
region 2
video
1.81:1
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Director's commentary
Interview with director
distributor
Metrodome
release date
21 November 2005
review posted
20 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews