by Saul Landau
Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 3-5
HEARTS AND MINDS, a sentimental and intellectual film as its title suggests, brings back some of the unresolved issues of Vietnam to a forgetful film public. Not the best made film in art, technique, or concept, HEARTS AND MINDS nevertheless deals with an emotion that has become lost in commercial United States: shame. And when the film falls below the poetic level required to sustain that emotion, it dips into the pool of guilt in which many of us have swum.
Shame, an ancient and profound concept, like Mind, does not disappear after “doing something” about a wrong. Although modern social scientists and politicians have tried to erase the concept, lest it strike some of them, shame comes from recognizing a profound value failure. The quality of Mind and the coldness of Heart that characterize the United States in this “moving” picture provide insight into the rulers of this country and into liberal filmmakers.
HEARTS AND MINDS, if one can verbalize a film message, seems to shake its visual finger at the United States and Americans, without distinguishing between classes of people or degrees of responsibility. “Shame on you, America,” says the film, rather than presenting the objective conditions of shame: possibilities for greatness, generosity, virtue and the banal and vulgar murder of those possibilities. That, of course, would require a different film. In this one Peter Davis uses amateur actors, whose testimony edited together does build to an emotional level that few films attain. Shame does not, however, indicate the existence of struggle or ongoing process. Rather than seeing mass movements struggling with empires, the filmmakers imply that notions of human nature provide the ultimate explanation for human foibles like war. This allows hand wringing as a legitimate political exercise. In HEARTS AND MINDS reasons for U.S. entry and participation in the war become obscured. We are led are led to believe from the evidence presented that our basic national character is at fault.
Perhaps the film belongs in the category of intellectual horrors: a parade of officials, ex-officials, Presidents and veterans testify—with illustrated footage—about what they did in and to Vietnam and why. The film does not delve deep into psyches or history to reveal the answer—a questionable cinematic task. Audience members interpret the words and body motions of a series of witnesses whose crimes, illustrated with newsreel film, they must judge. This formula documentary transcends the cliché and becomes art because of the way it handles eight main witnesses, in close ups and medium shots, who dominate the film trial of the United States. The silent prosecutor, Director Peter Davis, remains a grey figure, never seen and only occasionally heard off camera. But his hand guides the presentation of witnesses.
Daniel Ellsberg, of Rand and the Defense Department, and Walt Rostow, President Johnson’s adviser, provide a bizarre cinematic insight into intellectual prostitution. These two former highlevel thinkers and advisers have chosen different routes to madness. Ellsberg acknowledges his evil. Rostow calls evil good.
Daniel Ellsberg has a wonderful movie profile, and the face and manner of the committed Ivy League intellectual, but he has not perfected his acting techniques. Ellsberg relates his conscience-stricken tale of turning from combat-lusting warrior in the early Vietnam War years to the repentant who made public the dirty evidence (Pentagon Papers) about the war. He acts out the role of a man seeking redemption for his sins. Director Davis accentuates the qualities he perceives in Ellsberg—sincerity, intelligence and thinly disguised self-importance.
The importance that Ellsberg apparently attributes to his personal redemption and the intensity with which he describes how he transferred his conscience from the service of the war makers to the service of the peacemakers create a combination of images that leaves him hanging on the screen as a self-effacing megalomaniac. As long as Indochinese people bear the painful consequences of their mainline resistance to U.S. imperialism, individuals like Ellsberg, who cry mea culpa, can procure no redemption. No movement, nor high priest nor leader can set down for him the conditions for redemption, nor can anyone hear his confession and say, “You are forgiven, my son.”
Knowing this, the movie actor Daniel Ellsberg shifts to pleading his case. But what he wants from the movie audience never becomes clear. Forgiveness? Understanding? Approval? Applause for his acting? The very qualities that led the real Ellsberg into his personal perdition reappear when he talks about Bobby Kennedy’s death. He begins by recounting—Actor’s Studio style—Bobby’s last day, which included Ellsberg writing a speech and delivering it to the late candidate. Bobby wore a bathrobe, Ellsberg says, adding a note of authenticity and drama. Then Ellsberg’s face moves, in a theatrical gesture not proper for cinema, and he begins to sob, a little too much for the wide screen, about the death of the man that could have saved ... the United States? or Ellsberg? Bobby could have brought Daniel Ellsberg back to power if he had won the election, and this time Ellsberg would be on the Right Side. Thus, his acts of redemption would come through his re-ascent to power.
In 1975, Daniel Ellsberg (a temporary) hero of the left (because of his brave Pentagon Papers act) makes the movie public nervous. Redemption for this pathetic and yet courageous man has become impossible. Unlike ex-Nixon crony Charles Colson, who can turn to Jesus freaking, Ellsberg, the Ivy League intellectual, must reject so crude an option. The Fundamentalist’s Grace, or Ehrlichman’s desperate reach for Works (with Indians), have no parallels in the political world in which Ellsberg walks. As a film character, Daniel Ellsberg is uncomfortable. As a real life person he will continue to walk alone among the damned—at least as long as his main emotional and intellectual focus remains on himself and his sins. His fate teaches a lesson, the lesson of the successful intellectual who turns against the power of empire, but still requires the large amounts of attention and approval to which the powerful and successful become accustomed.
Another righteous and indignant character, in close up and medium shots, appears. Under his chest it says, “Walt Whitman Rostow, a former presidential adviser.” We believe the man on the screen is Rostow, and not Dean Jagger, because Rostow knows how to summon just the proper amount of intellectual piety. Few trained actors possess that insight into true arrogance. (I could imagine Charles Aznavour as Ellsberg.) Rostow shows impatience with the fact that anyone can still question the rightness or wrongness of U.S. involvement, but Director Davis pursues this point, seeing a chance to open up Rostow’s character.
Davis succeeds. Rostow, smiling contemptuously, scarcely concealing his hate for Davis, delivers a pompous discourse on the official history of the war. We see Rostow’s killer instinct flash on the screen. He would like to kill the director. Unlike Ellsberg, he had never fought in Vietnam, in uniform, with a rifle, but his carnal desires had been realized. His advice and the bombing of the cities, his rationality and the death of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans, tie together in a historical knot. Rostow, refusing to recant, turns further into the path of self justification and righteousness.
A man cursed by the name of the people’s poet, Walt Whitman Rostow became the poet for Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This poet finds words to make acceptable and even advisable the destruction of another people. Rostow, playing himself, becomes far more interesting than Bat Guano of Dr. Strangelove. He curls his lips just enough to show his feelings for liberals, softies, and all those who cannot see the United States’ destiny as he sees it. This vicarious killer, an emotional descendant of Captain Ahab, scorns those who in the name of mere humanity would impede the United States’ historic path to empire.
Rostow tried to stop HEARTS AND MINDS from appearing in public. He did not like his performance, or at least he did not want the public to see him “losing his cool.” But this scholarly Rasputin, committed to a mission of world domination, comes across as a powerful man who coached a President on how to deploy forces and defeat enemies. Although this “crackpot realist” helped lead Johnson into defeat and retirement, his face shows no sign of shame or even guilt. Instead, he perseveres with the logic derived from his insane assumptions. He believes, still, that the U.S. did not go far enough in Vietnam, and film viewers suffer a mild shock of recognition: some U.S. policy makers believe that mass murder is legitimate.
The film evidence of destruction in Vietnam illustrates Rostow’s fanaticism. But what does that mean? Who, then, is guilty? Or who should feel ashamed? As members of an audience, we are called upon to pass judgments based on a montage of images and sounds that draw a very unpleasant picture of modern U.S. values and people. We see a football locker room, with a crazy coach revving up his boys to win; violence and pain on the playing field, intercut with violence and vulgarity done to Vietnam. This selected action is used as a vulgar illustration that U.S. policymakers proceed from the same brutal value system as high school football and battlefield massacres. We don't see the positive values on the screen. So the action footage Davis uses shows his own view of the U.S. culture, a moralistic judgment, quite lacking in optimism or struggle. It is a moral film prosecutor’s view, not a political one.
The film glues us to our chairs as more witnesses appear: two appointed officials, one trained in the military academy; the other a ruling class hireling, designated for important jobs in courts and cabinets, secluded club rooms and public halls: Westmoreland and Clifford.
Clark Clifford, a troubleshooter in corporate and government affairs, had no strong opinions about the propitiousness of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Not persuaded by newspaper atrocity photos and TV horror films of U.S. military torturing and killing, this skeptical and moldy gentleman, reasonable but firm, is the opposite of Humphrey Bogart: soft on the outside and hard on the inside. No sentiment moves him, but he does feel moved after interrogating the Joint Chiefs of Staff for five days and concluding from their answers that the U.S. involvement cannot succeed, even with a higher investment and risk. Morality should not interfere with practical considerations when the corporate executive makes his judgment. So another character in the trial emerges, neither hero nor villain, just a former Secretary of Defense who opted against the war after, like a good courtroom lawyer, squeezing truth out of the military brass. Having made his judgment in private, Clifford announced it on wide screen.
Enter the military in General William Westmoreland, the Professional. This aging Randolph Scott, the operational side of the Clark Clifford coin, speaks softly underneath a magnolia tree in South Carolina. Hippie critics named him General Wastemoreland. But there’s nothing funny about this man. As he talks one wonders what lies beneath the silver mane and the clean cut features. Maybe this man, playing the Southern gentleman on the screen, wishes to set the record straight about his role in the war. We know him as a failure. He explains that his job in Indochina had built-in difficulties, just as old General MacArthur had warned him. The failure, however, had nothing to do with morality or with killing Vietnamese and destroying their land. No Hollywood actor could bring to the screen the 20th century image of Robert E. Lee, his military thinking and racism unchanged by the 20th century.
For Westmoreland no number of dead Asians could bring forth the emotion of shame. Only some Eugene O'Neill type mother-son relationship, with incest and matricide, could bring that emotion out of this dead-souled antebellum character living in a nuclear age. The Vietnamese don't care as much about death as we do, he says. The magnolia tree moves in a gentle breeze. Westy is sincere. But the filmmakers don't think the audience is sensitive enough to realize the irony. So they show us Vietnamese caring about death. Two old women who have lost a sister—a shot holds too long, too heavy. A Vietnamese mother crawling into the grave after her son’s coffin is lowered into it, again milking the obvious, compromising the art. Shame requires the intervention of art if one does not directly experience tragedy. The interview of Westmoreland provides artful testimony on our leaders and war commanders. But the illustration of Westy’s remarks reflects insecurity or the filmmakers’ part, something they can ill-afford in this trial before the audience-jury.
Westmoreland, with his military mastery of understatement, tells us that “we had the enemy on the ropes” (enemy is an impersonal term) after the Tet offensive, but LBJ, like a boxer’s manager, “threw in the towel.” If we had only used more firepower to clobber him; if only, if only ... Westmoreland comes on the screen following a glimpse of the anti-war movement at a Washington rally—noisy, grubby and scuzzy, disordered and sensual, freaks and hippies, angries and impassioneds. A good contrast, even though we see little in the film of the struggle that many people waged to end the war. Struggle is difficult to present on film, since it is a long and often confusing—and undramatic—process. The trial, however, provides a form for documentaries, one that also locks the director into his narrow prosecutor role.
Among the major witnesses appear two minor characters to add dimension to the case against the United States. From the garbage pails of history Peter Davis resurrects an ancient Mandarin type named General Khahn, the former president of South Vietnam (1964-65); and a wizened French conservative, Georges Bidault, the French Foreign Minister during the last days of their empire in Indochina. Like a retired veteran of the Comédie Française, Bidault relates with full authority how a former Secretary of State offered the French two (not one or three, but two) atomic bombs to win the battle of Dien Bien Phu, to maintain Western domination over Indochina and to defeat the communists automatically. Two bombs. What gall! A great film scene. And it really happened. You could have been there.
Thinking about the past and near disasters never became an U.S. custom, because we have always wanted to know what we can do now. So this question can be extracted from the film: Would Kissinger offer two bombs to another nation now? Who saved the situation back in 1964? Eisenhower? Bidault shrugs his sagging shoulders in a French gesture of superiority indicating that Americans are crazy.
Bidault’s Vietnamese counterpart, now living in Paris, might have come from Central Casting. “Give me a dignified Oriental type,” the director might have requested, “to testify about how The United States robs Asians of their dignity.” General Khahn, proud and formal, explains that, while President, he tried to preserve Vietnam’s independence. His statement, made in French, could fall into the bizarre joke realm. But the wily former president, like the wily former U.S. president, taped all of his incoming phone calls. Suspense falls upon the audience as Khahn pulls a quarter-inch magnetic tape from its box, explaining as he threads the tape recorder that his tape contains the voice of General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s general, who even spoke French, though slowly. Taylor, polite but explicit, orders the President of South Vietnam to leave his own country.
For the sake of the film trial, the evidence weighs heavily. Khahn, who used to be known as an U.S. stooge, and Bidault, a reactionary colonialist, emerge as highly credible film witnesses because, in addition to their superb acting performances, they share the filmmakers’ (prosecutors’) contempt for the United States and its people. These characters used to be rats before they became movie stars. Now they emerge on the screen as pathetic characters stripped by U.S. officials of their dignity. Shame on you, says the film to the audience, to the dead Dulles, to the former Commander Taylor. Dignity stripping is a serious offense, but to whom? The audience has seen the victims—children with flesh hanging, burned by napalm. The filmmakers reveal a value. A dimension of aristocratic English public school fairplay comes across. When the film’s message transcends the people’s struggle, it is therefore beside the point.
The deed, the Vietnam War, for the purpose of the film, is done. The film is about the aftermath, the unchangeable results of the War. Viewers cringe when they confront horror on the wide screen, but when tragedy becomes banal, viewers stop cringing. A limbless GI, amidst other limbless veterans in a prosthesis fitting room, describes how he lost his legs just as he might describe what he ate for breakfast. The men are laughing, chattering, behaving as any group of young men would, while attendants try to fit artificial limbs onto stumps. The camera captures the milieu of cripples and prepares the audience to see two major crippled characters.
The two young men, a black and a white, good looking, witty and charming, talk about their war experiences—in close ups and medium shots. They talk about killing and excitement in combat, just as boys would describe those adventures. No moral issues arise from the war. As boys they learned that stealing and killing were sins, but they played war and football and above all they learned that winning is everything. So these boys went to Nam and played war over there, with real weapons. They had no political thoughts or moral pangs; no hesitations about killing Vietnamese. Then they grew up.
The camera pulls back on each veteran and reveals cripples seated in wheelchairs. Just as they describe their maturing processes, the shattering of immortality at the very moment they were hit, the zoom lens begins its dramatic pullback. The loss of a limb is a heavy price to pay for growing up. Tension mounts in the theater. Then Davis brings on the white cripple’s girlfriend to tell the audience, bitterly, that her husband is no longer any good as a lover or husband.
Cinematic overkill can ruin a delicate scene. The reflective mood established by the revelation of the maimed veterans, these innocent killers, becomes diluted by Davis’s use of the explicit. The use of the woman complaining that her man is crippled allows the viewer to slide out from under the pensive mood and into the vicarious to which we have become accustomed in movie theaters. The woman’s complaints obscure the point. The wounded man did not care about war or killing or destruction of a country and a culture. He enjoyed himself in the war until he was hit. A cloud of shame and confusion builds during the interviews, as we begin to feel somehow responsible for the lost limbs and the crimes these limbless adolescents committed. But that tension becomes diffused by the explicit.
Editing makes the subtle differences between good and great films. Beautiful pictures selected from the mediocre and bad, when put together with clear sound, create a powerful emotion- and intellect-shaping art, which can teach lessons by imprinting images and sounds onto the brains of captive audiences. When an editing failure occurs, when heavy handedness weakens the subtle and careful interviews, filmic structure is betrayed. The artist loses faith in his art and his audience. Polemicism replaces montage. Art, as the perfection of cinematic craft and the agile use of imagination, shows itself through HEARTS AND MINDS. So the flaws stand out even more.
The interview, used so effectively by Marcel Ophuls in THE SORROW AND THE PITY, is a difficult cinematic stunt. Ophuls directs and then edits his interviews to make his a political statement. But any film director working with amateur actors must loosen the environment sufficiently to allow the actor to relax, yet create enough tension to make the subject dramatically interesting. In both Ophuls’ film and in HEARTS AND MINDS, the interview is used to make the directors’ points about characters and historical phenomena. Davis works on the thin wire between informing and enriching us as moviegoers and citizens, and using the screen to put the United States on trial. When his characters perform for posterity, we feel enriched, reflective. When Davis slips into his prosecutor role, accusing the United States, the film loses cinematic focus and provokes the audience to ask: Who the hell are these people to put their country on trial?
They are members of a liberal and sensitive film crew who met reactionary and coarse America in Linden, New Jersey, and the cultural clash reaches the screen. General Westmoreland’s genteel racism pales before the crassness of Lieutenant Coker, an ex-bomber pilot who spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Coker feels no remorse for his or his country’s behavior. He announces at a “Welcome Home With Honor” parade that he would go again if called.
Coker’s counterpart, Captain Randy Floyd of Oklahoma, who also bombed the Vietnamese, describes how he used to get kicks from watching the flares made by the explosive he dropped. But then he began to understand that people died. Tears fall from his eyes, less theatrically than Ellsberg’s sobs, more effective cinema. He expresses regret, pain, shame for what he did, for what his children would learn. The filmmakers sympathize with Floyd, who, like most U.S. boys, went to Vietnam without thinking, without the tools which forge morality and politics, sensibility and compassion into values for mature people. And now his soul and spirit feel the weight of his crime. He asks nothing from us, he has internalized his sin. And he has learned how his actions derived from political ignorance, and an innocent lust for empire and adventure that many white Americans have for two centuries displayed without having to pay moral or political dues.
Coker would kill and burn again if ordered because he knows his country is right, and his country means his family and his church and his town. He makes the audience squirm, just as the filmmakers must have cringed while filming him. Who taught this young man to have no pangs about killing? Mother, he declares, to an audience of WASP women. Old racist sergeants, and high school football coaches, lying presidents and their missionary advisers—these are the people who made this country great for Lieutenant Coker.
HEARTS AND MINDS not only shows how much we destroyed “over there,” but brings the war home the way no other work of art has done. But it does so without optimism. The Lieutenant Coker sequences could push liberals even further into hand-wringing as a way of life, because for the filmmakers, Lieutenant Coker and his milieu represent the United States and its values. Lying officials and cold-blooded leaders, crazy football coaches and militarism in high schools do make up part of the U.S. milieu. But the link that completes the chain of indictment is delivered by Lt. Coker (who looks like Lt. Calley): Motherhood. Lt. Coker addresses the mothers: “You made me the person I am.” And they don't blink, they look proud of themselves, of Coker.
Coker, like a grown-up Skippy Homeier in WATCH ON THE RHINE, has a Nazi youth mentality. But he remains so unaware of his racism and authoritarianism as to remain an innocent American, defending his great country. HEARTS AND MINDS presents this uniformed creep, welcomed and loved by his townsfolk, as the product of U.S. values and culture. The film accuses us: as an audience we feel not only indicted, tried and found guilty, but also impotent to change the monster we have all created. In the theater, film has strength. When we emerge on the street we begin to reflect, compare film reality to what we know. So the film forces us to struggle with some ugly but real forces.
Coker lectures to grade school youngsters who ask, faces shining and curious, what Vietnam was like. It was very beautiful, except for the people, responds Coker. The Vietnamese are backward and barbaric. The supporting evidence that shows much of the United States agreeing with or potentially agreeing with Coker helps round out the filmmakers’ closing arguments. The repentant Captain Floyd sheds his tears alone. Coker, the returning hero, walks among crowds, spouting the patriotic pap which substitutes for morality among his peers.
Rostow cloaks his missionary zeal behind reasoned tones. The son of immigrants who has risen high because he could justify the bloody policies of empire knows he has sinned. Somewhere, down deep in his troubled, nearly psychotic old-world soul, soul, he knows he has done evil. He will not acknowledge, but he knows. Even Westmoreland possesses, in his face and voice, traces of sensibility that one can imagine would make him a good friend, capable of feeling for his army buddies. But Coker has no soul behind his slogans, no morality that anyone could understand. And without morality shame cannot exist.
Coker, the man we see amidst crowds of cheering Americans, would obey an order to push the button without the slightest hesitation. And, he warns the youth of Linden, we will go to war again and you will be called upon to serve.
The film’s good guys—Floyd, Ellsberg, some crippled veterans and Vietnamese, old French empire statesmen, and Vietnamese Mandarins stand as a firm answer to the overwhelming weight of evil and destruction the film portrays. After seeing the Lieutenant Coker sequences, if we follow the film’s logic, we must ask, “Who needs the United States if this man represents lt.”
Can we not at least turn to our history for some positive signs, some hope from those who have internalized the traditions of the past? The Americans who appear throughout the film, those who did not fight the war, support the filmmakers’ moral judgment against the United States. Those who have experienced tragedy because of the war do not reflect on the moral problem. We meet a middle aged couple who have lost a son, and feel proud of it. The vulgarity of locker room follies and the rah-rah violence pale before the statements of this New England couple.
Director Peter Davis and photographer Richard Pearce draw out the two witnesses, the mother and the father—Pearce sensing movement, following his characters, providing them with lighting and blocking. We discover that these descendants of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who protested against U.S. entry into the Mexican War) feel that their son died not in a sinful, shameful war, but in yet another war for democracy and freedom. The lens moves along the straight nose of this thin Yankee and into his deep-set cold blue eyes. One sees nothing. The film’s power grips the audience by setting up the objective conditions for tragedy. But the loss of a young life brings no true grief from the parents.
Perhaps this man’s feelings of personal loss cannot be expressed, at least not on camera. But why agree to the interview? To show how tough and strong one can act, even when confronted with loss? This man appears immune to feelings—grief, shame, the loss of a son. Then his wife talks, a short, gray-haired mother, trying to smile and appear cheerful for the camera—stiff upper lip and all that—not to let others know the emptiness she feels now that her only son is dead. Pearce sees her fondling a model warplane as she talks of her son’s death, then pans to her husband, unfeeling eyes, a terrible lover by the look of him, so intent on repressing emotion. She caresses the object, the instrument of her son’s death.
In the film this couple represents the parents of dead GIs. They are witnesses for the prosecution. America, says the film, you have lost your ability to express feeling. It’s not the Vietnamese who treat death lightly, General Westmoreland, it’s the Americans who refuse to show deep feelings when they lose their supposed loved ones. The boy dies in vain, committing evil. It’s not that we were on the wrong side, explains Daniel Ellsberg looking into camera, “We were the wrong side.” The New England Yankee, however, would rather endure the loss of his son than the loss of the United States. He cannot give up his country, although all we have seen of the United States in the film shows nothing worth holding onto. His wife nervously caresses the jet fighter. A smile forced on her face suppresses the tears. This scene brings the audience-jury to despair, or to tears if we identify with the woman and her loss.
And if this war brings out the inability of the patriot from New England and the Confederate from South Carolina to feel shame or remorse, just look at what we did to South Vietnam. Enter comic relief, and intellectual horror. A South Vietnamese businessman, a farcical imitation of a Rotarian, says he got into the war corruption racket a little later than most, but not too late. And he saw Vietnam’s future as a large and expanding consumer market for the junk and gadgets that have made sensitive and ecologically-minded Amencans sick. The war made this man and we made the war. Not only have we killed, maimed and humiliated the Vietnamese, we have culturally fucked them over.
The antiwar movement appears only for a short time, both in rallies and in brief interviews with antiwar Americans which dot the screen toward the end of the film. We d not see the mass antiwar movement. Instead, we get the idea that brave war opponents, like Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, led that antiwar movement. Here again the film is flawed, because many people participated for moral reasons. Their participation led to some new politics, the result of which was Johnson’s retirement and the “winding down of the war.” The U.S. people’s protests made “winning the war impossible” just as did the Vietnamese people’s heroism. But these themes do not appear as major points. The film indicts the country; it does not understand or confirm it. Davis selected a hardboiled New Englander and a hardboiled ex-POW, but he could have chosen their opposites. He concentrated on the killing and winning values in the football game and the locker room, not on a bunch of dropout dope smokers or political reformers. The filmmaker and moralist traveled through the United States and Vietnam with a camera and tape recorder. He concluded—before or after?—that the war had destroyed morality, decency, and sensitivity.
On screen the loners repent or try to atone; some feel genuine shame; at least that has been captured. The United States does not have a national Ash Wednesday or Yom Kippur for individuals to atone for war crimes and tell God about their shame over what they did. The message of HEARTS AND MINDS is that the United States, as a culture, is heartless. Its mind is consumed with winning and remaining Number One, rather than with right or justice.
Rarely does a movie provide so much material to talk about, argue over, reflect upon. Audiences bring to movies their current ideas and they usually leave feeling little influence, having learned little from what appeared on the screen. HEARTS AND MINDS offers images of ourselves through Davis’ eyes, but his liberal despair need not rub off on all of us. He is a sensitive man and his sensibility as a filmmaker fails only when he does not trust the audience’s intellect and becomes blunt with obvious and heavy illustrations.
The filmmakers’ assumptions lead them to this insecurity in their editing. A kind of aristocratic liberalism, which counts on a minimal level of human decency to order its world, has been violated by Vietnam; by the “winning is the only thing” spirit in high schools and churches; by the kind of youth the United States is producing. Liberals, even those who share Peter Davis’ sensibilities, have no vision except bleakness as they study their own country. The filmmakers do not yet conceive of this era as the beginning of the end, since they do not see the Vietnamese as having burst the bubble of the shortest-lived empire. But a film cannot contain everything, nor should it. Most documentary films shown in movie theaters or on television do not have the weight or content that HEARTS AND MINDS possesses.
The film is too rich to be dismissed as Emile de Antonio does in his putdown review in University Review. He called it “the Godfather of documentaries.” Yes, it cost more to make than all of the documentaries I have made, put together over nine years. But so what? People will see this one and they will learn from it. And they will be forced to revive what Ford and Rockefeller and Congress and the movie public hoped was a dead issue.
The film is prophetic. The Vietnamese people will haunt the consciousness of the United States for generations to come. Lyndon Johnson could not win their hearts and minds, nor could he bomb them into submission. They had right and justice on their side. The film shows this. They are stronger. With all our superiority in technology,we could not stop these people. Perhaps a better title could be borrowed from a film made by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden about the Vietnamese people, INTRODUCTION TO THE ENEMY. HEARTS AND MINDS shows the enemy at home, in our institutions and values, our empire, and the strategy required to maintain that empire. The Fonda-Hayden film might be titled “Hearts and Minds,” for with those two organs the Vietnamese struggled and defeated the monster who showed neither.
Some reviewers have criticized the film for perpetuating the “we-they” view, the good guys with morality on their side and the bad guys with power. Others have said that the film carries only the politics of despair. Both arguments have merit. Yet they seem irrelevant in the face of what Davis has accomplished. He brought the war home, revived the issue, threw it in our face. I can live with a little righteousness because the very form of the documentary trapped him. Marcel Ophuls in his essay film THE SORROW AND THE PITY interviewed individuals who acted on the basis of a decision without thinking of the consequences. In the end Ophuls shows compassion for his subjects. World War II is more than twenty-five years behind us; those who collaborated suffered.
Davis, in weaving his film essay about the impact of Vietnam on the United States, gets caught in the prosecutor role. By conducting interviews with no material other than illustrative footage, he is prey to the iron laws of form and content. His form was a trial; his case was intellectually weak and politically confused. So his sensitivity as an interviewer, in drawing out of war criminals some insightful confessions, cannot be sustained by his evidence. Anyone can select ugliness over beauty, but that selection can only convince those who have already decided to wring their hands in moral despair. Since Davis has no programmatic politics that he can relate, he utilizes moral sensibilities, and thereby becomes a moralist, a judge. Artists have historically claimed that right and gotten away with it, so I'm willing to let Davis slip by. For the enrichment of our souls and minds, we ought to congratulate him, Producer Bert Schneider, Photographer Dick Pearce, Editor Lynzee Klingman and the film team.
See the film.