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Hearts and Minds


Review by Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

Working with assured breadth and acuity, Peter Davis, director of the remarkable 1974 documentary "Hearts & Minds, " created a compelling first draft of freshly lived history. Today, 30 years later, it plays with a solemn sense of inevitability.

The film is a dextrous balance of war footage, portraits of combatants and Vietnamese civilians and interviews with such key figures as Gen. William Westmoreland, Daniel Ellsberg and Clark Clifford. With his keen attention to the telling fact and nuance and judicious juxtapositions, Davis indicts the architects of American policy without ever stridently condemning. Detail after detail registers like tumblers on a combination lock falling into place.

A rueful Clifford, Lyndon Johnson's reluctant Secretary of Defense, recalls America's post-World War II confidence that "we could control the future of the world." Westmoreland, filmed beside a placid lake, repeats his infamous assertion that "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner." That's followed by a scene of unnervingly sustained anguished, as a grieving Vietnamese woman is hauled screaming from a freshly dug grave.

A freed American prisoner of war tells a group of New Jersey elementary schoolchildren that "the people over there (in Vietnam) have made a mess out of everything." Picking through the rubble of his fields, a North Vietnamese farmer retreats from the camera and says over his shoulder, "First they bomb as much as they please. Then they film." Davis' ironies are at once artful and remorseless. Everyone -- even the filmmaker/observer, was in some way blighted by this war.
In a section of the film devoted to the war protests at home, Davis interviews a woman at Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park. "Certainly a mature person can say they made a mistake. Why can't a government?"

Steve Winn is the Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic. San Francisco Chronicle. August 30, 2004. Excerpt posted with permission of the author.