Not only the definitive American documentary about the war in Vietnam but a landmark political action, Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974) was built to outrage, appall, and indict. Certainly, its re-release in Film Forum’s conscientiously agitprop autumn season has the identical intent—today, Vietnam is hardly simply a disputed footnote on our candidates’ CVs, but an idiotic historical hellfire we did not remember vividly enough and are therefore already repeating. Look how many of us, who think the present administration has a copyright on public lying for the benefit of the war industry, have forgotten the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (“He lied,” Senator J.W. Fulbright says of LBJ, but Davis doesn’t elaborate—in 1974, he didn’t have to.) Look how many of us—the polls remain even steven—have at least semiconsciously decided that body bags returning from a faraway killing field are the noble price we’ll pay for some dishonestly touted something-or-other. ‘Nam pressed on officially for nine years, unofficially for 14 or more—as someone in Davis’s stinging gallery of talking-heads interviews reminds us, it’s the longest U.S. conflict of all time—and yet virtually all that remains of it are pop-cult clichés and the most beautiful monument in the District of Columbia.
Interested primarily in the conflict between experience and the propaganda lingering in stateside mouths, Hearts and Minds may not have been the first feature film to expressly interrogate American policy (Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig saw light in 1968), but it crystallized its era. Davis is hypnotized by the semiotics of middle-class militarism, whether in and around a high school football game or a 1776 re-enactment, itself counterset against Ho Chi Minh’s hope that America would be empathetic to the similarly righteous Vietnamese war against the French. (We were, instead, funding nearly 80 percent of the opposition.) Radicals still maintain that no one acknowledges the American invasion as such, but Davis’s witnesses were saying the words in 1974, and in an Oscar-winning film. Not to mention, the peasants in Davis’s film, like Palestinians and Iraqis today, know perfectly well whose planes are annihilating their homes and families: “Nixon murderer!” one bereaved mother screams.
Still, Davis’s trump moments are strictly Eisensteinian: cutting from a Vietnamese capitalist hopefully outlining his future plunder to a busy factory rapping out prosthetic limbs or a heartbreaking funeral scene, complete with loved ones assailing the coffin, followed by beefeater General Westmoreland asserting that “Orientals” don’t put “the same high price on life as does the Westerner.” Even if you think Davis went too far in scoring images of village razing and torture with a bouncy rendition of “Over There,” the all-important equation of official jingoism and murderous destruction is tough to dicker over.
There might be five documentaries no American should be able to finish public school without seeing, and Hearts and Minds belongs on the docket. It also forms a vital link in a subversive people’s cinema, clearly realigning history as a never ending series of crimes perpetrated by the powerful upon the innocent. But for a few particulars, Davis’s film seems as much a prosecution of the present as it is of the recent past; only the names and geographies have been changed.