Like a golem summoned out of a thousand Swift Boat accusations and our latest quagmire overseas, Peter Davis’s landmark 1974 documentary rises again from the miasma of moral and national confusion that is the Vietnam War’s legacy-“We weren’t on the wrong side,” a stricken Daniel Ellsberg confides, “we were the wrong side”-and Davis’s inquest into the conflict, its causes, and its aftermath still stings because his indictment casts such a wide net.
Using an editing strategy partly derived from Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig and long since refined to sharpened shtick by Michael Moore and Comedy Central, Davis counterpoints appalling footage of napalmed children, manhandled villagers, Zippo-lit hooches, and indiscriminate bombing with culled evidence of bellicose cultural blood poisoning. Here, a POW speaking to schoolchildren about the war parrots a high school football coach’s indoctrinary spiel; the John Birch Society supplies public schools with Red-baiting lesson plans; and Karen Morley in The Face of Fu Manchu (“You yellow beast!”) anticipates General William Westmoreland’s sage assessment of the enemy (“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner”).
But there’s no on-screen grandstander to mediate the movie’s cold fury, no Colbert to arch an eyebrow at its juxtapositions of talking-head travesty and real-life tragedy. Now returning to theaters, Hearts and Minds stands as the ugly historical record reflected in Watchmen’s funhouse mirror.