Dec. 6, 2010
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Peter Davis
Stars: Clark Clifford, Daniel Ellsberg, William C. Westmoreland

What it's about. A leftist documentary of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, filmed as the American effort was winding down.

How others will see it. In a nervy call, Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Today, the user ratings are extremely high, and despite graphic content, they are slightly higher from women than they are from men. Women are traditionally more anti-war than are men, because they pay more attention to the consequences of war than its politically charged causes.

How I felt about it. This is an important film, because of its historical content. The snippets of interviews, the glimpses into the lives of people associated with different aspects of the Vietnam War, are valuable documents.

Of course, the makers of the documentary, Henry Lange and Bert Schneider, have an agenda. The film is propaganda. The purpose of the movie is to discredit the American involvement in the Vietnam War. The documentary is scattershot, but in the end, effective. Most open-minded, educated, and intelligent viewers will conclude from the movie that it was wrong for America to wage war in Vietnam.

The film barely mentions the Domino Theory, the eventual basis for American entry into the Vietnam War. That theory was based on Soviet political consolidation of Eastern Europe immediately after World War II. If one country falls to communism, the neighboring countries will fall, too. And so on, and so forth, like a tumor taking over the world.

In addition, there were many opportunistic politicians who used the cry of "Communist!" to bully opposition or encourage votes from the gullible. Joseph McCarthy was only the worst among those.

As we know now, the Domino Theory was wrong. Vietnam became communist. Neighbor Thailand did not. Vietnam was of marginal strategic importance after all. The United States wasted massive economic resources, and committed war crimes on an extraordinary scale. A generation of American young men was fearful of the draft, brainwashed into the honor of killing Vietnamese, and (in some cases) killed, crippled, or emotionally damaged.

The U.S. lost the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese won. They would have won under any scenario, since they were fiercely dedicated, and would wait out the Americans, as they had the French and Chinese for centuries before. If U.S. military advisors had done their job correctly, they would have told their commanding officers this. But then, that is not what the commanders would have wanted to hear.

We know this now. Few Americans understood it during the 1960s, because they were told partial, misleading information, and out and out lies, by American generals and Presidents, who were in turn guided by political self-interest or the now-discredited Domino Theory.

Some bright bulbs, such as Presidential advisor Clark Clifford, realized through a process of education that the war was hopeless. Others, like Democratic speechwriter Daniel Ellsberg, took the additional step to realize that the war was not only lost, it was misguided, and even wrong, to begin with.

But the military officers, trained to obey orders, continue to cling to false positions, because those positions provide their anchor of sanity. General William C. Westmoreland and Lt. George Coker make embarrassingly racist statements about the Vietnamese to justify what they did, and what was done to them.

Hearts and Minds is invaluable for demonstrating all this to us, although in some cases we have to connect the dots ourselves. However, the documentary should have been better structured to provide a narrative or continuity. That makes it lesser, in terms of quality, than The Fog of War or Full Metal Jacket.

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