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Hearts and Minds: The Criterion Collection

Peter Davis's Hearts and Minds ranks among the most powerful of American documentaries with its account of the American military involvement in Vietnam, winning the Academy Award in 1975 for Best Documentary. And a lot of the power simply comes from the total commitment to the filmmaking — a product of the growing Hollywood left (producer Bert Schneider reportedly gave thousands of dollars to the Black Panthers, and was enamored with radical Huey Newton), Davis's sharp, contrapuntal structure hammers the point again and again — how much longer can the American government, and the American public, turn a blind eye to the horrors of Vietnam, particularly in an arena of battle that offers no clear strategy or victory? Numerous government officials, soldiers, pilots, and parents are interviewed, but always within the context of Vietnam as a real place with real people (we see grass homes being burned, Agent Orange drops, children scorched by napalm, and even a man shot in the head by a South Vietnamese officer). But despite the powerful editing and images, it's clear that Hearts and Minds has an agenda, and is more a thesis than an inquisitive documentary. Part of this comes from the politics behind the film, but probably even more from the immediacy of the project — after all, the war was still underway when production began, and Davis and Schneider must have felt a real need to make the argument in the most persuasive manner possible. In its way, Hearts and Minds is like an epic-length political commercial — maybe the best political commercial in history — presenting persons and facts in a perfunctory way before hitting all of the emotional buttons. It's a film that generates an emotional response, not a critical one, and this sort of project would benefit from a few decades of sober reflection. Davis portrays the American government, from the Truman to Nixon administrations, as a bumbling, imperial power prone to jingoistic military excursions, which may have been a fair reading of geopolitical politics from 1945 to 1975. But we can later see that Vietnam was a watershed in the American experience, and since that conflict the United States has been a chastened superpower, reluctant to send young men and women into harm's way without the two things Vietnam lacked: a battle plan and an exit strategy (Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Afghanistan bear this out). And while the U.S. military committed some horrifying acts in Vietnam, including warfare on civilians, the nature of the Viet Cong communists is entirely glossed over, despite the fact that they committed their share of atrocities as well and were not universally loved by the Vietnamese people. For the U.S., 'Nam was a policy failure, pure and simple — a point that Hearts and Minds sufficiently gets across. But with its array of juxtaposed speeches, interviews, and images that consistently vilify American politicians and soldiers while the Vietnamese suffer, it offers a strange whiff of propaganda. Like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, such can make for great filmmaking. It just isn't always smart politics. Criterion's DVD release of Hearts and Minds features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a restored print, with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0. Features include an informative commentary with director Davis and an extensive booklet with retrospective essays. Keep-case.
—JJB



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