Movie Review: Hearts and Minds (1974)

Vietnam documentary: all about denial _ 10/10
Review by Brian Wright

Hearts and MindsHearts and Minds stands out as a seminal documentary work, regardless of subject. Michael Moore cites Hearts and Minds as the one movie that inspired him to become a film maker, calling it “not only the best documentary I have ever seen, it may be the best movie ever.”

Even though I mention in a note on Kevin’s page that his incarceration was the straw that broke the camel’s back, viewing such a powerful a movie as Hearts and Minds causes a mind of conscience to cut off all support for tyrannical government.

So what’s the fuss? Hearts and Minds is a simple documentary, composed in 1974, while the War in Vietnam was winding down—in January 1973 Nixon announced suspension of all offensive actions against North Vietnam, to be followed by a unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. troops—yet Vietnam was still a fresh and festering wound in American consciousness. [Not to mention in the consciousnesses of relatives and friends of the millions of Vietnamese civilian casualties of American-government aggression.]

The title Hearts and Minds comes from a statement by Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam would not be won until the hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese accepted the American geopolitical ‘solution.’

Some solution. From the gitgo, what distinguishes Hearts and Minds is its focus on the hearts, minds, and spirits of individual Vietnamese civilians (ostensibly real people)—by interviewing or filming dozens of them—whose homes and families have been destroyed by American bombing, who cry out that their three-year-old daughters have been napalmed to death, or their teenage sons sent, forever, without charge or trial, to US-sponsored South-Vietnamese torture chambers and prisons, or their mothers and sisters ethnically cleansed by US soldiers on rape-and-pillage-the-gooks patrols, or their fathers summarily executed with M16 rifle butts to the skull. [Sorry, I know, only the enemy did such things.]

On the opposite end from those receiving the aggression in the streets and fields (of what I’m told is an extremely beautiful country), the documentary also interviews key poobahs and potentates delivering the aggression. The sequences showing Walter Rostow, national security adviser to LBJ, calling the reporter a mother***ker are priceless. Indeed, I read somewhere his lawyers wanted to sue to remove these comments. Anyway, Rostow is deep CIA and clearly the point man for dissembling to the American people why the United States needed to crush Vietnamese independence. “We won’t be fooled again!” Well…

Director Peter Davis evenhandedly lets the people on all sides speak and act for themselves. Being no expert on documentary technique, I must say you feel you are right there in the room or out in the countryside with all the players: American military officials (especially General Westmoreland who candidly refers to oriental persons as being morally defective), political leaders from several countries, Army, Air Force guys, Navy fliers who had been captured by the enemy, prostitutes (literal and figurative), corporate scavengers and opportunists of all stripes, amputees both ours and theirs, and so on. The scale of the picture is rather mind-blowing.

Let me simply identify a segment of the film that stayed with me. It deals with the persistent ADF (American Denial Factor), and the subject is a bomber pilot who flew missions over ‘Nam, named Randy Floyd. Here’s the description he gives on his pride of work and duty:

“It can be described much like a singer doing an aria, he’s totally into what he’s doing, he’s totally feeling it, he knows the aria, and he’s experiencing the aria, and he knows his limits, and he knows whether he’s doing it and doing it well. Flying an aircraft can be a great deal like that. You can tell when the aircraft feels just right, you can tell it’s about to stall. I can tell where I can’t pull another fraction of a pound, or the airplane will stall and flip out and spin on me. I would follow a little pathway on something like a TV screen in front of me that would direct me right, left or center, follow the steering, keep the steering symbol centered, I’d see a little attack light when we’d step into attack. I could pull the commit switch on my stick and the computer took over, the computer figured out the ballistics, the air speed, the slant range, and dropped the bombs when we got to the appropriate point, in whichever kind of attack we’d selected, whether it be flying straight and level, or tossing our bombs out. So, it was very much a technical expertise thing, I was a good pilot, I had a lot of pride in my ability to fly.”

Then toward film’s end, Randy again from his porch in Norman, Oklahoma:

During the missions, after the missions, the result of what I was doing, the result of this game, and this exercise of my technical expertise, never really dawned on me. That reality of the screams or the people blown away, or their homeland being destroyed, just was not a part of what I thought about. We as Americans have never experienced that, we’ve never experienced any kind of devastation. When I was there, I never saw a child that got burned by napalm. I didn’t drop napalm but I dropped things just as bad. I dropped CBUs, which can’t destroy anything, it’s meant for people, it’s an anti-personnel weapon. We used to drop canister upon canister of these things with two hundred tumbling little balls in there about this big around with about 600 pellets in each ball that would blow out as soon as it hit the ground and shred people to pieces. They couldn’t be gotten out in many cases. People would suffer; they would live, but they would suffer, often they would die afterwards. This would cause people to have to take care of them.

But I look at my children now. And I don’t know what would happen, what I would think about-if someone napalmed them.

The camera stays on Randy for a full minute. Tears are in his eyes, but he’s trying not to cry. The interviewer asks him, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from all this?”

“I think we’re trying not to. I think I’m trying not to, sometimes. I can’t even cry easily, from my manhood image. I think Americans have tried, we’ve all tried very hard to escape what we’ve learned in Vietnam, to not come to the logical conclusions of what’s happened there. The military does the same thing. They don’t realize that people fighting for their own freedom are not going to be stopped by just changing your tactics, you know, adding a little more sophisticated technology over here, improving the tactics we used last time, not making quite the same mistakes, you know I think history operates a little different than that. I think those kind of forces are not going to be stopped. I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their policy makers have exhibited.”

Let’s hope Randy is wrong… about not stopping “blind nationalist faith.” Recent US government wars of aggression are not encouraging. If you watch Hearts and Minds, make sure your compassion-relief valve is in top working order. Otherwise, you’ll break down in jags of crying 30 minutes in.

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