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The Criterion edition DVD of Hearts and Minds has liner notes. The 32-page booklet contains five essays by one film critic, three professors, and a writer/columnist. Instead of critiquing the film, each uses the movie as a launching point for his or her essay on the Vietnam era. Hearts and Minds is something of an invisible movie to these people; only the subject matter shows through.

Maybe that means my generation is really the first to be able to see Hearts and Minds as a film. None of us lived through the Vietnam era with memories and political feelings intact. We’re the first generation who can watch this movie and not launch into our own political essays. Or so it would seem.

Spectral Analysis

Criterion introduces Hearts & Minds to a new generation of film audiencesHearts and Minds is a documentary about the American involvement in Vietnam. Director Peter Davis covers four administrations, from Eisenhower to Nixon, and he interviews everyone from to hawkish generals to draft dodgers. It’s an ambitious movie. Its spectrum is very wide, and at 112 minutes, it is necessarily sparse and patchy.

Davis holds the film together by coming back to a few key interviews. Lieutenant George Coker, In spite of being held for years as a prisoner of war, says he would go back and fight if his government asked him to. Davis films the hero’s welcome, with a parade and patriotic speeches. Later, Coker gives speeches to schools and social clubs. He doesn’t see any personal connection to Vietnam, rather, he reflects any credit or condemnation back on the public. “If I am a good American, it is only because America brought me up to be a good American.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Captain Randy Floyd, who speaks from his back porch in Oklahoma. He came to take his involvement in Vietnam very personally. He recounts his memories of dropping napalm on innocent villages. The thought of someone doing that to his own family, and the realization that he did it to others, brings tears to his eyes.

In-between these two is First Lieutenant Robert Muller. His biggest regret is not that he killed Vietnamese soldiers — that was his job — but rather that his permanent injury, earned in the line of duty as a Marine, ironically cost him the pride and respect that Marines earn when they stand at attention.

There is also footage from Vietnam, not just of Americans fighting, but of the impact on the people of Vietnam. Several interviews take place in the rubble of bombed and destroyed buildings. Angry or sorrowful Vietnamese citizens try to cope with their loss and the invasion of their privacy from Davis’ cameras.

Cuts that Hurt, Cuts that Don’t

Although Hearts and Minds has a broad spectrum, it is not unbiased. Davis has a clear point of view on American involvement in Vietnam, and he lets his editing do most of the talking. The reasons for American involvement are imperialist. The Vietnamese are fighting for their freedom. Americans are needlessly causing great suffering to the people of Vietnam. The American generals are heartless and clueless.

Davis never asserts these points of view himself, rather, he interviews subjects who will say these things for him. It’s an interesting strategy. On the one hand, everything the film asserts is de facto backed up by documentary footage. But on the other hand, some of Davis’ editing decisions are so obvious and so carefully placed in a specific context, that one almost feels sorry for anyone Davis uses as a mouthpiece. Case in point is General William Westmoreland. Davis spends five minutes on a Vietnamese funeral. A young man has been killed and his little brother and mother pay tribute and weep at the funeral. The deceased’s mother even tries to throw herself into her son’s grave in despair. Davis cuts immediately to Westmoreland, dressed in a suit, sitting comfortably, calmly saying “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”

After Davis’ five-minute sequence on a Vietnamese funeral, the statement is callous and shocking. It was a stupid thing to say, but one can’t help but feel Davis’ presence as he cuts from the one to the other. Davis has set a trap, (more likely found a trap), and he loses a little credibility by making Westmoreland’s statement look even stupider than it really was.

And yet sometimes when nobody is hurt by these cuts, they are sheer genius. For example, Davis shows a Vietnamese priest saying that the Vietnamese are fighting “only for freedom, independence, and national unity.” A Vietnamese magazine editor says “this war is a war against the American imperialist. This is our war for independence.” Davis then cuts to a scene of an American Independecne Day celebration with a historian dressed as a minuteman saying “these weren’t mythical, hazy people in the past, these were very real people. When they rose up against the most powerful army in the world, they were actually putting everything on the line that they had.”

Incomplete History

Using all this disparate material, Davis paints a cohesive, dense, intricate, picture of American involvement in the Vietnam War. If I have a complaint, it is contained in that previous sentence. Hearts and Minds is all about American involvement in Vietnam. As a member of a generation that grew up with less exposure to Vietnam, I was left with several basic questions about the war itself.

America viewed it as a fight against communism, but how did Russia view it? To what extent was it really a war of ideology? What did the Viet Cong think, and what were they trying to accomplish? These questions aren’t answered in Hearts and Minds because Hearts and Minds is not about that. It’s only one movie, after all, and it was made at a time when great assumptions could be made about the audience’s familiarity with the details of the Vietnam War.

Hearts and Minds makes me feel like the kid who gets to eavesdrop in on the grownups’ conversation. I get to hear them talk and debate about issues that are a little over my head. I don’t know what every reference and every detail means, but I can still pick up on the arguments themselves and the passions behind those arguments.

Even if the events in the movie didn’t touch my generation personally, it shows us the reaction of our country to a war that was at best debatable. Late in 2002, as President Bush looks for ways to drag America into an endless “war” on terrorism and an invasion of another poor nation (Iraq), there are many parallels to be made. Perhaps Peter Davis should bring his cameras out of retirement.

Picture and Sound

The picture on Criterion’s DVD is surprisingly good. I assumed that, being a documentary, Hearts and Minds must have originated on 16mm film, although I could be wrong. Reprints from the movie printed in the booklet reveal lots of grain and loss of color. But on-screen, the movie, particularly the parts Davis filmed himself (as opposed to the stock footage), are pristine. The picture was transferred to video from a 35mm interpositive under Davis’ and his cinematographer Richard Pearce’s supervision. Styles of clothes and hair date the movie, but the presentation looks true to the source.

Once again I find I am at a loss to evaluate the DVD’s sound. Hearts and Minds is encoded in Dolby Digital monaural, so only your center speaker will be used. It’s the right decision, but it’s hard to rave about a monaural track, other than to call it adequate.

DVD Extras

There is a commentary track recorded by Peter Davis in the last year or two. Oftentimes an important figure who would be immediately recognized in 1973 is not so easy to spot in 2002, and thankfully, he offers a little more insight into who is on screen and their relevance to the politics of the time.

Davis also wanders off into stories that weren’t included in the film, and the decisions that went into shooting and editing the movie. The commentary track makes the movie itself more clear, it makes the structure of the film more apparent and less seemingly random.

The only other extra of note is the booklet of essays, and they help to put the documentary into the right context and help emphasize how the movie illustrates a larger trend.

With 200 hours of footage being edited down to 112 minutes, I wonder if some of that extra footage might have been included to make for a better package of extras.

Conclusion

Hearts and Minds is certainly a disc you can watch more than once. The first viewing might let you take it all in, and subsequent viewings let you focus on the details and the structure. It’s a dense enough film that you’re likely to see something new on a second viewing.

It’s a movie aimed at an older crowd than me, at a crowd who saw this film on a college campus in 1973 and now wants it for their DVD collection. As for some of us young whippersnappers, it’s an important historical document from a time before we were aware of politics.