There’s more than a whiff of bitterness to the title of Peter Davis’ landmark documentary “Hearts and Minds,” now reissued by Criterion in a new Blu-ray edition. The phrase refers to a Lyndon B. Johnson speech suggesting that the Vietnam War would be won not just tactically, but philosophically. We could not only defeat the North Vietnamese but turn the Vietnamese people into our spiritual allies, winning their hearts and minds for freedom and democracy.
Of course, that didn’t happen. It’s almost too easy for Davis to juxtapose that video clip, or a similarly misguided statement by Gen. William Westmoreland, against footage of a U.S. soldier torching a village, or abusing a prisoner, or learning to live with prosthetic legs. Davis does this over and over in “Hearts and Minds,” slam-cutting the righteousness of our statements with the real damage of our actions. (No wonder the film is such an influence on Michael Moore.)
Davis could make cheap but well-deserved shots all day, but what emerges from “Hearts and Minds” is far more elliptical, less a we-said, we-did montage than a crazy-quilt collage of the ’60s. Davis’ editing seems almost intuitive, jumping from a preacher banging helmets in a thundering locker-room sermon to high school football players to helicopters raining death on the Vietnamese countryside, then settling on an interview with a machine-gunner, who grins unsettlingly as he says, “I enjoy it.”
What Davis wants to explore, really, is America’s hearts and minds, the hearts and minds of men who would send other men’s sons into combat, and the hearts and minds of sons who would willingly, even eagerly go. “Hearts” has no narration tying it together, just that free-association editing as it jumps from scene to scene. (There’s even footage of the 1950 “May Day” in Misonee, Wisconsin, in which a mock Communist takeover was staged by the town elders.) It feels like chaos, which is perhaps the best way to capture a chaotic time.
But there’s an order to Davis’ choice and placement of images in the film, and that’s what makes “Hearts and Minds” such a landmark documentary. There’s no question that it’s biased, a damning indictment of the leaders who were not merely wrong, but lied. But it’s also an indictment of ourselves, and our willingness to believe in a strain of American exceptionalism that always seems to manifest itself in war, over and over.
As whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg puts it: “It’s a credit to the American people that their leaders knew they had to lie to us to make the war possible. It is no credit that we were so easy to mislead.”
The Criterion Blu-ray edition ports over all the special features from the 2001 DVD release, including deleted scenes and a fascinating commentary track by Davis, who explains his choices in editing the film together.