Review: Hearts and Minds

This incendiary agitprop regards Vietnam as a story of murder, humiliation, xenophobia, cultural brainwashing, and unjustified warmongering.

Hearts and Minds
Photo: Rainbow Releasing

This incendiary, pushy, and downright hostile agitprop regards Vietnam as a story of murder, humiliation, xenophobia, cultural brainwashing, and unjustified warmongering. Director Peter Davis sticks to a rigid structure of point-counterpoint, employing firsthand documentary footage intercut with pop-cultural artifacts (“better dead than red” commercials and patriotic wartime musicals with soldiers marching and singing), newsreel footage (unforgettable images of communist guerrillas shot in the temple by pistol-wielding American soldiers), and interviews with authority figures ranging from politicians to officers, religious leaders to businessmen (as war profiteers), all seen as pompous windbags who string along a party line of optimistic, self-righteous clichés, then cutting to ex-servicemen with thousand-yard stares above their smiles telling their stories—and not necessarily contradicting the authority figures, making a frightening case for American rhetoric passed down from mass media to accepted thought. Equal time is spent with the Vietnamese, ranging from farmers in bombed villages (a former pig farmer, smiling painfully and chomping on a cigarette, points at where his home once was) and well-fed political leaders giggling at a social club while waiters wheel in a roasted pig. Completely unsubtle in its depiction of Big Brother, the fat cats who spout its rhetoric and the slaves who die in the name of a cause they barely understand, Hearts and Minds is an essay told in a voice of thinly controlled moral outrage, which sometimes dribbles over into seething hate; a montage of footage of an American football game, with robotic cheerleaders, feels like slippage into an argument that has lost all control, and feels like a tantrum-style rant for its own sake. When Davis, halfway through the movie, returns to veterans as interview subjects and tilts his camera down to reveal that they are paralyzed from the waist down or missing a limb, it’s hard to determine whether it’s exploitative or revelatory, but unlike all the news footage of the Iraq war, he shows the physical and psychic toll, and makes a special point of showing body bags and corpses. But the human faces, so devastated and brutalized by experiences they can’t quite describe, tell the real story of Hearts and Minds. This documentary opens up the psychic wound of a country and its citizens—one we apparently still haven’t learned from, which is why this film still feels so vital.

 Cast: George Bidault, Clark Clifford, George Coker, Randy Floyd, Khanh Nguyen, William C. Westmoreland  Director: Peter Davis  Screenwriter: Peter Davis  Distributor: Rainbow Releasing  Running Time: 112 min  Rating: R  Year: 1974  Buy: Video

Jeremiah Kipp

Jeremiah Kipp is a New York City based writer, producer and director with over ten years experience creating narrative and commercial films.

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