A startling and courageous film, Peter Davis’s landmark 1974 documentary 'Hearts and Minds' unflinchingly confronted the United States’ involvement in Vietnam at the height of the foment that surrounded it. Using a wealth of sources—from interviews to newsreels to footage of the conflict and the upheaval it occasioned on the home front—Davis constructs a powerfully affecting picture of the disastrous effects of war. Explosive, persuasive, and wrenching, 'Hearts and Minds' is an overwhelming emotional experience and the most important nonfiction film ever made about this devastating period in history.
Peter Davis' exploration of the Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, in 'Hearts and Minds' earned an Academy Award for Best Documentary on April 8, 1975. Twenty-two days later, the Fall of Saigon occurred, an event marking the end of the war, the first the United States had lost. Yet, it wasn't solely a loss for the military; the country lost a great deal as well. In addition to the nearly 60,000 U.S. service members who died and the billions of dollars spent, which includes the financial support to France during the First Indochina War, a great number of citizens lost faith in their leaders and government, and rightly so because the people's trust was betrayed.
Davis uses interviews and archival footage to tell the story of what happened as the United States government, regardless of the President's political affiliation, worked for decades to fight against the growth of Communism in Asia. By 1954, the U.S. was responsible for 78 percent of France's costs. Georges Bidault, then the French Foreign Minister, makes a surprising, at least to this viewer, admission that John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, offered France two atomic bombs. Thankfully, they declined because I couldn’t imagine what the world would be like, presuming I would have lived to see it, if atomic bombs had became regular weapons of warfare, and they surely would have.
The film gets its title from President Lyndon Johnson, who states, “the ultimate victory [in Vietnam] will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there.” LBJ was right, but not as he intended. In interviews with Vietnamese people, a priest refers to the American invasion and genocide, and a magazine editor says Vietnam fought for independence against American imperialism. An elderly coffin maker talks about his people never giving up. If they have rice, they will fight. When they run out, they will grow rice and then get back to fighting. It seems the only way the U.S. was going to win was if they had a "kill 'em all" policy, revealing the U.S. government/military underestimated the resolve of their foe.
The Vietnamese reaction is not surprising when the U.S. appears to do the work of the enemy through incompetence and mismanagement. After a bombing attack killed his young daughter, a distraught father cries out, wondering what he did to President Nixon to cause this. The indifference to the plight of the Vietnamese people is unfortunate, but also not surprising after seeing some of the Americans interviewed. Lt. George Coker, a PoW for seven years, tells school children that the Vietnamese are backwards. Now, he understandably likely had a tainted view, but to hear General Westmoreland, the commander of the United States forces in Vietnam from 1964-68 say, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient" it's obvious the problem starts at the top.
'Hearts and Minds' has an obvious anti-Vietnam War bias but it's hard to fault Davis when Senator Fulbright calls LBJ a liar, and the war, which many had lost faith in, was still being waged. The anti-war people, including former soldiers, come off better in their interviews, but the pro-war people do say the things they are seen saying. That's not to say the filmmaker doesn't use the tools of the medium to his benefit. When a couple of Americans are seen talking about the exhilaration of flying bombers, Davis contrasts it with images of Vietnamese affected by bombings. Although incomplete for a subject so enormous, 'Hearts and Minds' makes for a compelling critique.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 'Hearts and Minds (#156 in The Criterion Collection) Combo Pack comes with a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc and two DVDs housed together in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 44-page booklet containing essays by filmmaker Peter Davis ("Vietnam and Memory"), film critic Judith Crist ("The Right Side of History"), and college professors Robert K. Bingham ("The Human Connection"), George C. Herring ("A Historical Context"), and Ngo Vinh Long ("Moving the People").
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal, "this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from the Academy Film Archive's restored 35mm interpositive, which was produced under the supervision of director Peter Davis and cinematographer Richard Pearce. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, and splices were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management."
'Hearts and Minds' makes use of a variety of sources alongside the material shot specifically for the film. The historical significance outweighs the appearance of the video so I am more lenient with what I find acceptable in documentaries, as just obtaining the information is the priority. The archive material ranges from newsreels to footage recorded in U.S. bombers and of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns. The film grain and damage to the material fluctuates but never becomes too much of a distraction. The quality of the blacks and grays in the black and white footage varies as well.
In the modern-day footage, many colors are seen in strong hues, such as the red, white, and blues that welcome Lt. Coker, whose uniform is a bright white, home to Linden, NJ. A more vibrant red can be seen in the NBC News footage that captures General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon during the Tet Offensive as the blood squirts out the bullet hole. The jungle greens look accurate. Details and depth are adequate. Any issues with them, or soft focus, in the archive material is a source issue and not a result of the encode.
The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "was remastered at 24-bit from the restored magnetic DME tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using iZotope RX 3."
The dialogue in the modern interviews sounds clean and is free of damage or wear. The explosions had more bass than I anticipated and for a few moments reveal the dynamic range is wider than just the talking heads, which predominantly fills the soundtrack, make clear.
With the current turmoil in the Middle East making some question the costs and the rationale for the last Iraq War, this high-definition upgrade by The Criterion Collection is timely and may serve as an inspiration to create an unoffical sequel. The video and audio are presented as well as they can be considering the source, so 'Hearts and Minds' may be better suited for history buffs rather than HD aficionados.