20 June 2009

Hearts & Minds

United States - 1974
Director – Peter Davis
Criterion, 2002, DVD
Run time - 1 hour, 52 min.

I don't have an aversion to good movies, but it’s not like me to write a review for something that won an academy award (1975 Best Documentary Film). Particularly not something that has been distributed as part of the Criterion Collection, an esteem which certainly prevents it from becoming a “lost video” per-se. However, as with my review of Winter Soldier and my interest in American culture, in particular the Vietnam era, I think the message that Hearts & Minds conveys may be lost, particularly considering an increasing public ignorance of history in this country.

Hearts & Minds has a deceptively simple premise centered on the concept of “winning hearts and minds”, the essence of which was that we could secure "freedom and democracy" in Vietnam if we could show the Vietnamese how good (kind etc.) we were, and they would reject Communism. The film doesn't question whether hearts and minds were "won", but asks whose they were in the context of the war. Davis urges us to see the degree to which American citizens had detatched themselves from the democratic process and allowed themselves to be led by their government rather than being the engine of policy themselves.

This takes on a rather sinister note considering that the decisions being made will ultimately result in widespread destruction and suffering do matter how you slice it. Decisions that have to be accounted for and justified and for which all Americans will ultimately be held responsible. In interviews with specific individuals who suffered the consequences of their decisions, the issue is raised that we should consider our own values rather than letting someone tell us what we should think and believe (and ultimately do).

The American people are “too busy to get involved deeply,” one interviewee claims, a sentiment that leaves little doubt as to who was doing the leading in Vietnam. But it begs the larger question of why, if the American people were too busy to bother, did we go into Vietnam, and who made that decision? At this point that's a purely academic question, but it further illustrates the implications of this film. How could the American people be convinced, or at the very least led, into Vietnam unless it was marketed and sold to them, and wouldn’t the fact that it had to be sold tell us there is something fundamentally wrong with our much heralded representative democracy?

The simple fact is that the Vietnam War created vast amounts of misery, not the least on the Vietnamese people, but on American GI’s and their families as well. This documentary effectively draws attention to the principle of democratic responsibility and its utter failure in American domestic and foreign policy in the context of Vietnam.
For that reason Hearts & Minds might not be called truly documentarian but it does raise some disturbing questions about American mythmaking and propaganda. Ultimately the film points to the underlying hypocrisy of the phrase uttered by several of its subjects; “My country right or wrong”.

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”
– Thomas Paine - Common Sense, Feb. 14, 1776.


regis said...

Good review, but why is this on this blog? Documentaries on DVD on The Lost Video Archive? You're risking the dilution of your appeal unless you make an effort to tie them in to your theme somehow.

Seth J G Goodkind said...

I think in this case, as with Winter Soldier and Ethnic Notions, the message risks getting lost. Fundamentally H & M suggests that we really look at our role in American political culture instead of taking it for granted as many of us seem to do. It may be a stretch to include it here, but I'll justify it by saying that after 8 plus years of studying the Vietnam conflict, I hadn't heard of this movie until a few months ago, so in a sense it is "lost". I have no excuse it's lack of nudity or zombies however.

brokennib said...

Good review, I'll slapping this on my Que in Netflix, I'm interested in the message of that particular year (1975) and by coincidence, I have a few days on my new job to train with a gentleman who is a former N.V.A. P.O.W., and he is just very interesting, to say the least.(he's straight out of central casting, wiry build,dresses in grey, smokes a lot of Dunhill's.) Are there any good Doc's from a distinctive Vietnamese point of view?

Seth J G Goodkind said...

I don't know of any, there is still not much available in the US from the Vietnamese. There are a few books I can recommend though.