On the commentary track for Peter Davis’ Hearts And Minds, a landmark documentary about the Vietnam War, Davis says he went into the mammoth project with three questions: “Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? And what did the doing do to us?” As long as the footage he captured addressed one or more of these questions, it could be used for the film. But here’s the thing: Those are huge questions, and countless documentaries can be made (and have been made) about each one of them. Addressing all of them seems like a fool’s game. But the scope of Hearts And Minds is key to its singular achievement: Davis has given himself the power to free-associate, so images of the razing of a South Vietnamese village can co-exist with a POW’s return home after seven years in prison, Daniel Ellsberg talking about Bobby Kennedy, and even a preacher in Ohio associating gridiron victory with God’s will. It’s a cinematic essay of constant movement and provocation, a record of one man finding his way through the fog of war.
Davis immediately makes hash of the title. It comes from a Lyndon Johnson speech on the war, in which he declared “the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” The superfluous “out” in that statement says something in itself, about the vast distance between America and Vietnam, and the otherness of the people American soldiers were ostensibly aiding. Davis entertains arguments from hawkish officials like Walt Rostow, a fiercely anti-communist National Security Adviser under Johnson, and General William Westmoreland, the U.S. Army Chief Of Staff, who at one point claimed the enemy was “on the ropes.” But he implies that both men are spewing fantasy and propaganda, and he juxtaposes their remarks with scenes of villages razed and mourners in agony.
The knock against Hearts And Minds is that Davis editorializes unfairly, and makes fools out of men like Rostow and Westmoreland, who submitted to interviews that become ambushes in the editing. It’s hard to deny this is true—Michael Moore, who considers the film among the greatest ever made, clearly took some pages from Davis’ playbook—but Davis isn’t implying that these subjects are simply wrong. He’s implying that they’re liars, and he has the footage to prove it. Released in 1974, when it could be considered part of a heated cultural conversation, Hearts And Minds is an activist documentary, making an emotional, impassioned plea against the war as emphatically and comprehensively as possible. Charges of bias are irrelevant.
Whatever its propagandistic goals, however, Hearts And Minds remains an expansive, intuitive work of art, abandoning traditional narrative structure for a more free-flowing association of interviews and images. Even when Davis is laying the groundwork for America’s initial involvement in the war, he’s experimenting and provoking: An interview with Clark Clifford, Robert McNamara’s successor as secretary of defense, leads into a gung-ho Irving Berlin number, which in turns yields to the astonishing claim that the U.S. tried to offer atomic bombs to France to end the country’s misadventures in Indochina. But Davis and his editors, Lynzee Klingman and Susan Martin, aren’t interested in letting chronology or any other structural device dictate where the film should go next. It’s like a living organism, reactive and impulsive—even now, 40 years later, when the mistakes of Vietnam have been repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though Davis deploys some archival footage when necessary—including some of the most famously graphic images of the war, like the napalm-singed Phan Thi Kim Phuc, or the execution of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan—he and his crew traveled far and wide to get some striking original footage, too. They go to rural villages before and after the bombs and chemicals rain down from the sky; they follow Lt. George Coker, the seven-year POW, on a propaganda tour through schools and recreation halls; they even spend time with a high-school football team just for metaphorical purposes. The interviews are no less revelatory, either. In particular, Ellsberg claims that five straight presidents willfully lied about defeating an enemy that was never going to surrender, and veteran Randy Floyd closes the film with the worry that Americans are trying to escape any lessons learned from Vietnam. Based on our recent past, he had reason for concern.
Recorded for Criterion’s original 2001 DVD release, Davis’ commentary track is exceptional, providing both context for the footage onscreen and his rationale for including it in the finished film. What’s striking about the commentary is how it confirms Davis to be as much artist as editorialist: He wanted to include the preacher rooting for the football team as evidence of America’s arrogant view that God was on their side. He saw the dynamics of a game, with cheerleaders in the stands and men on the field of conflict, as a metaphor for war. And he meant a remarkable scene shot inside a Vietnamese whorehouse as an extension of a land given over to prostitution. The other big features on the disc are interviews and sequences excised from the film, which was pared down from 200 hours of footage. Many of the interview subjects aren’t in the film at all, mainly because Davis wanted to focus on people whose positions had changed as the war played out. That left thoughtful men like David Brinkley, a newscaster who never favored engagement in Vietnam, on the cutting-room floor. There are also two major scenes that focus on South Vietnamese war casualties—one a funeral, one a tour through a hospital—that didn’t find their way into the finished film. All are worth a look, both for their substance and because of the way they assist viewers in understanding Davis’ rationale for keeping them out.