Peter Davis’ landmark documentary Hearts And Minds was completed at a very particular moment in the history of the Vietnam War. The film had its world premiere at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival—less than a year after the Case-Church Amendment ended direct U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, and less than a year prior to the fall of Saigon. It appeared, in other words, during the brief period when it was even vaguely possible for Americans to claim that we had won the war, as former POW George Thomas Coker does in footage Davis shot at one of Coker’s public appearances (talking to a bunch of school kids). That context is important, because Hearts And Minds has little or no interest in appearing objective. Like Fahrenheit 9/11—a précis of Michael Moore’s frustration in the wake of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech—it’s a cry of despair made by a person whose viewpoint hadn’t yet been soundly vindicated.
Thankfully, Davis didn’t take Moore’s grandstanding approach, even if he inspired some of Moore’s less savory methods. (Moore has said that Hearts And Minds “may be the best movie ever [made].”) Though Davis’ voice can occasionally be heard off-camera, and some of his interview subjects address him directly—“Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question? You really want me to go into this, Mr. Davis?” asks former national security advisor Walt Rostow, in response to a simple query about why the U.S. was in Vietnam in the first place—he mostly remains in the background, allowing people like General William Westmoreland to hang themselves with their own words. Westmoreland’s stunning assertion that the Vietnamese don’t value human life as much as Americans do, which Davis saves for the film’s final moments (and juxtaposes with footage of a sobbing Vietnamese woman being restrained from following a coffin into an open grave), arguably says more about American foreign policy than shelves of books.
Although Hearts And Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1975, it was a controversial choice at the time, with many outspoken opponents. (At the ceremony itself—which took place just three weeks before Saigon fell—co-producer Bert Schneider read a telegram from a Viet Cong ambassador, prompting co-host Frank Sinatra to relay a statement from the Academy, written backstage by co-host Bob Hope, disavowing any political opinions.) There’s no question that Davis engages in some regrettable sophistry here and there, making the film look like it’s taking cheap shots. When a couple being interviewed express confidence in President Nixon, who hadn’t yet resigned when the film was finished, the words “filmed early in 1973” snottily appear on-screen; when former defense secretary Clark Clifford says “I could not have been more wrong in my attitude toward Vietnam [under Lyndon B. Johnson],” Davis smash-cuts to completely unrelated footage of wild applause. Nor is it really necessary to follow interviews with bomber pilots, who talk about how they never saw the results of their missions, with shots of the devastation those missions caused. We already got the point.
Decades later, however, these lapses seem much less important than Hearts And Minds’ general inquiry into America’s state of mind about the Vietnam War while it was still (technically) in progress. Davis takes an approach that could be called either impressionistic or scattershot, according to taste; rather than carefully build an argument, the film skips from one scarcely related topic to the next, based more on mood than on logic. There are deeply moving digressions that have little or nothing to do with Vietnam, as when Daniel Ellsberg loses his composure talking about Bobby Kennedy’s death. The inclusion of over two hours’ worth of outtakes on the Criterion release (newly upgraded to Blu-ray) only strengthens the time-capsule element. Virtually everybody agrees now that the Vietnam War was a huge mistake. It’s a testament to Hearts And Minds’ artistry that the film remains compelling long after there’s any need for it to make a case for that conclusion.