Hearts & Minds (1974)
Directed by Peter Davis
The Cannes Film Festival has kicked off this year. Many new films will be unveiled, from the Hollywood studio ones to small, independent pictures. Forty-eight years ago, the documentary Hearts & Minds debuted at Cannes. However, its distribution in the United States would be held back when a restraining order was issued by one of the interview subjects, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. Columbia Pictures, which owned the rights, refused to distribute the film to venues. This led to director/producer Peter Davis and his colleagues being forced to buy back their own movie from Columbia. Why would so many people and institutions work so hard to prevent the public from seeing a film? Because it is a searing condemnation of America and the atrocities it committed in Vietnam.
When Hearts & Minds was made and released, the Vietnam War was in its twilight period. As Gore Vidal so beautifully put it, we live in the United States of Amnesia, so you are not faulted if you don’t know the origins and details of the Vietnam War. We certainly aren’t taught it in any meaningful way in schools, so you have to seek out the whole truth. The conflict was born out of French imperialism in what was known as Indochina. The leader of the Vietnamese rebellion against the French was Ho Chi Minh, and he was inspired by the literature he read about the American Revolution. He even wrote to the White House and the US government, asking for help. That, of course, was denied because there was no immediate value seen in exploiting the situation. Ho Chi Minh eventually found inspiration in Communist writing which is when it suddenly became a hot zone for America’s brutal cold war against Communism.
By 1974, the United States had clearly lost the war, yet it refused to bring its soldiers home and stop the atrocities. The Vietnamese mounted the Tet Offensive six years prior, a surprise mass attack using over 85,000 soldiers against the US invaders. The Vietnamese casualties were massive, but they created a powerful psychological effect on American morale for the war. The government tried to double and triple down, but this brilliantly coordinated attack showed that this was not a war to liberate the Vietnamese. The American presence was there to subjugate them; they wanted America out.
The title of this documentary comes from the colloquial saying referring to the way of winning support for a military effort. You must appeal to people’s emotions and logic. That is what the Vietnamese did in their ferocity and unwillingness to submit to their invaders. The hearts and minds of the American people and the young men being forced into battle were broken in the wake of this horrible war. The film presents many iconic moments that you’ve likely seen reproduced in still photos, images of true horror. I respect the unflinching manner in which the scenes are presented, emotion is raw, and people’s hearts are revealed. It is essential to hear the offensive words of national security advisers and General Westmoreland, the awful man that commanded the troops and was directly responsible for swaths of murder.
At the time of Hearts & Minds’ release, critics were divided. Roger Ebert, a film critic, often held up as a sympathetic liberal voice, sought to frame the picture as biased, not presenting a complete picture. I find that strange. I was incredibly moved by seeing footage of children running from their napalm-incinerated village, skin peeling off their backs. I broke down in heavy sobs as the camera showed more children clinging to their parent’s coffins and having all innocence and childhood stripped from them by the actions of the US military. This nonsense about “balanced” and “both sides” applies in some areas. In the realm of good & evil, invader & defender, in colonizer & colonized, there is no “both sides” for me. Everything the Vietnamese did was an act of self-defense, first against the French and then the United States.
The documentary does present a side not convenient to the American narrative, the voices of the veterans. Over half a dozen young men are interviewed; some feel that what they did was justifiable, while others are profoundly broken over what they saw and what they did. There’s Capt. Randy Floyd, a pilot, who dropped napalm and bombs on villages. He shares how his physical distance from these acts shielded him at first. However, he began to wrestle with seeing the consequences of his actions in newspapers and television. Floyd came to see how he had been used by the military and the government to commit acts of evil, and even more beautifully, he speaks of how he looks at his own child and imagines them experiencing what he did to those Vietnamese children. This expansion of consciousness has been intentionally held back by institutions that need-blind hatred to keep their military functioning. People like Floyd and others who testified about the war crimes have been conveniently obscured and forgotten. They will never be mentioned in history books or CNN documentaries about the war.
Hearts & Minds is precisely what makes the very invention of filmmaking worth it. The ability to capture reality and share it with people who otherwise would never fully understand it is powerful. I find the American media landscape has adapted, though, and now we have oversaturation; money is thrown around like wild to drown streaming platforms in utter crap while tweaking the algorithm to keep documentaries like this tamped down. Netflix will release a seemingly challenging doc on some social justice issue but never really go deep with the idea or present ideas that directly conflict with American hegemony. The effort to hide Hearts & Minds shows how dangerous and vital these types of films can be. They expose evil, something that thrives when we’re too tired and distracted to notice.