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”Heart & Minds is not only the best documentary I have ever seen, it may be the best movie ever. If I were to pick the one film that inspired me to pick up a camera, it is Hearts & Minds, a film that remains every bit as relevant today.” Michael Moore.

Hearts & Minds

Feature


Let’s get one thing straight. Hearts & Minds is not the type of film that you should pop in the DVD player and settle down with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of Coke. Instead of turning off your brain and being transported to a fantastic world a million miles away from your own, you need to engage the grey matter and embark on a journey through some of the darkest days in American history.

Filmed in 1974 when the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, Hearts & Minds takes a long hard look at American foreign policy. As director Peter Davis states in his interview (included as an extra), the intention of the film is to pose three questions:

1. Why did America go to war in Vietnam?
2. What did the Americans do to the Vietnamese?
3. In the process of going to war, what effect did it have on America and its people?

Davis himself admits that the film poses these questions but does not necessarily answer them, but there is enough evidence on show for the viewer to make up their own mind.

Without an on-screen correspondent with a microphone or a narrator, Davis presents the viewer with shots of America and Vietnam and uses more subtle techniques to guide us down the path he wants to take us. The use of montage sequences can be incredibly powerful, particularly where contrasting the American war-mongering with the suffering of Vietnamese families. I would challenge even the most gung-ho pro-war conservative to watch the footage of a Vietnamese family who have lost their farm and everything they own and not question their motives.

Hearts & Minds
”Even a bird has a nest it can go back to.”

Davis also throws in clips of pro-war Hollywood movies and public information films showing the threats of communism which would surely not be taken seriously in this cynical age. Towards the end, Davis uses very effective use of zoom to reveal attributes of his interviewees that, in some cases, are surprising given their stance on the war. This is a technique also used expertly by fellow film maker Errol Morris in his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

Hearts & Minds touches on themes that will be familiar to those who have watched Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 albeit without the same heavy-handed approach. The pervasive sense of fear throughout the USA maintained by the ever-present threat of ‘invasion’, in this case by communism, is shown to be used by the administration to lend the war an air of necessity, even though many of the people interviewed don’t seem to know who they’re at war with or why they’re fighting.

”I wanted to go out and kill some Gooks.”

In addition to the montage sequences, archive footage is used to fill in the gaps where Davis’ crew were unable to film. A large part of the film is made up of talking head interviews with members of the administration, individuals who had served in the war and those who had lost family members in the fighting. Some of these people crop up at various points throughout the film to show the different ways the war has affected them, both physically and emotionally. The closest we get to comic relief is William Marshall, a veteran with an attitude as big as his afro.

Hearts & Minds
In the same way that Hearts & Minds isn’t a light-hearted romp, it’s not for those with an aversion to a spot of blood either. There are many scenes of violence from the American point of view, where the explosions are seen from a distance which mirrors the comments of the ex-soldiers who dropped the bombs but never saw the devastation they caused. When we see the effects on the ground, it is unexpected and can be pretty horrific. We’ve all heard of napalm but you don’t appreciate its effects until you’ve seen a child with several layers of skin hanging from its body.

”Vietnam would be very pretty if it wasn’t for the people.” Lt. George Coker, PoW.

The film ends on an appropriately downbeat note with pro-war soldiers brawling with anti-war veterans following a high street parade. The American brands have invaded Vietnam and Bob Hope makes light of the war with comments at a presidential dinner with comments like “It’s good to have such a captive audience.”

It is clear that Peter Davis and Michael Moore have similar views on America and the administration’s foreign policy but their approaches are very different. Where Moore takes centre stage to spell out his message to the viewer, Davis presents us with his version of the facts and asks us to decide which side we will take, although his editing pushes us in the direction he wants us to go. Davis has created a very important document of American history showing the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of both countries which undoubtedly deserved the Oscar it won in 1975.

Video


On the whole, the video quality is good given its age. The picture is fairly sharp but has slightly muted colour depth and some shots have the fuzzy feel of news footage from the same era. The footage shot by Davis’ crew is pretty much free from dirt or noise. The interview extra offers a good comparison, including scratched and dirty footage of the film before it was re-mastered for the 30th anniversary Criterion edition (of which this disc is a direct transfer). There is interference on the archive footage although it’s unlikely any further improvements could be made on the picture.

Hearts & Minds

Audio


The sound also varies from one scene to another, although on a more significant basis than the video. The in-the-field footage predictably suffers from the explosions going off around the interviewees and the dialogue is sometimes difficult to follow. The audio quality through the rest of the film is adequate and events on-screen rarely allow for the stereo soundtrack to impress but given the right-on themes, we shouldn’t really expect the sound editors to make the most of the gunfire.

Extras


The commentary track is the highlight of the two main features on the disc. More of an interview than a commentary on the on-screen happenings, it is hosted by Time Out journalist Nick Bradshaw but Davis does most of the talking. He reveals his intention was to focus on the aspects of war that regular news reporters brush under the carpet and to purposely not use a narrator so the viewer could focus on the footage that the networks usually refer to as ‘dead air’. He also explains the lack of interviews with anti-war protestors by saying that their presence would have been unnecessary since a large number of people who would watch the film would already have taken this stance and he would have been preaching to the converted.

The only other extra is a twenty-two minute interview with Peter Davis, filmed for the production of the DVD in 2005. There is a bit of overlap in subject matter with the commentary but Davis touches on a lot of interesting points so I would recommend viewing this if you don’t want to sit through the whole film. The video and audio quality of this extra is far below that of the main feature though: the picture is non-anamorphic and it is often difficult to understand Davis due to the television-rattling echo in his surroundings.

The booklet provided with the DVD contains an essay by Peter Davis: ‘Hearts and Minds Redux’, written in 2005. It is a retrospective look at the making of the film which stats by drawing comparisons with the conflict in Iraq. Again, there are points made that can be found in the commentary and interview.

Hearts & Minds

Overall


Hearts & Minds has an agenda and for me, it was a powerful piece of film making. It is highly recommended viewing, giving a frank depiction of the effects of American foreign policy on another country that was trying to adopt US values of independence. The feature is presented in probably the best quality you’re going to see and hear it and the extras are comprehensive, if not exhaustive. I would have liked to have seen more about the controversy it must have caused on its release in 1974 and the impact of it winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary.


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