(This was requested by Tomás.)
Watching Hearts and Minds in 2013, it’s near impossible to remove the film from its cultural context. Not sure why I’d want to do that, to be honest. But it’s worth thinking about the value of Hearts and Minds not only as a polemic, not only as an artifact of its time, but also as a documentary. Granted, some would argue its aesthetic value is less important than its polemics, and while it is certainly “of its time”, it remains interesting not just as history but as a reflection on the current state of affairs.
The problem is that Hearts and Minds is much closer to the work of Michael Moore than it is to the work of a great documentarian working at the same time as Peter Davis, Marcel Ophüls. I am a fan of Moore’s work, but it has always seemed problematic, and some of those problems exist in Hearts and Minds, a film Moore has cited as influential on his own work. Davis proves himself an expert manipulator of information, and of course he has plenty to work with … I don’t disagree with his presentation of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. Moore has a greater tendency towards humor, which is one reason his movies are relatively popular, and he uses humor to make points, not only to get cheap laughs (although the latter are there in his movies). But both Moore and Davis are at times about as subtle as Eisenstein in their juxtaposition of images and events. And this works against their arguments, because I can’t help wondering what they’ve left out, in their firm desire to make a point.
Davis also stretches a bit when he tries to connect aspects of American life to our approach to Vietnam. The silliest of these stretches comes from the insertion of a few segments of high-school football. Davis wants us to believe that the emphasis on football in small-town America is just another example of the corruption of masculinity in our society. There may be something to his argument, but the use here of things like a fired-up, near-abusive football coach comes across more as propaganda than as actual information.
Thus, Hearts and Minds is a good film that takes us back to the time when the Vietnam War was still active, and it did and does perform important work in establishing some of the reasons why that war was especially bad. But I can’t imagine ever watching it because I wanted to learn about the depths of human behavior, the way I do when I return to The Sorrow and the Pity. 8/10.
Peter Davis directed around a dozen movies, and outside of this one and the TV documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, I’m not familiar with most of his work. As you can tell from the above, if you’re looking for a documentary, there are none to match The Sorrow and the Pity. Hearts and Minds famously led to some political gesturing at the Oscars ceremony when it won Best Documentary. If you’d like to see what it was up against in that category, check out Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, co-directed by Jill Godmilow and singer Judy Collins. For a documentary that covers the Vietnam Era using a style more subtly manipulative than Hearts and Minds, try Errol Morris’ The Fog of War.