'Hearts And Minds' Recaptured

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2004

THERE ARE at least two reasons to watch "Hearts and Minds," a 1974 documentary about Vietnam. How about this for starters? It's one of the best documentaries ever made, a superb film about the thoughts and feelings of the era, the whole festering, spirited animus of it.

And then there's the disquieting timeliness. With the Iraq war rapidly becoming America's most globally divisive foreign-policy decision in a generation, the parallels are clear. Once again, there is a war, a counterculture, hawks and doves, and even this: a questionable premise. Back then, a purported "unprovoked attack" by North Vietnamese against a U.S. destroyer, followed by a "deliberate attack" on American ships two days later were President Johnson's reasons (ultimately proved to be false) for war. Now, "the search for weapons of mass destruction" has evolved from rallying cry to grist for anger, derision and satirical mockery.

You won't need to peel back your ears to hear even more resonance. There's mention in Peter Davis's movie of the American taxpayers footing 78 percent of the French war in Indochina by 1954. Percentages of the cost of war were a motif in this season's presidential debates. And then there's this utterance from Johnson, shown in the film, and inspiration for the documentary's title: Victory, he says, "will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there."

Certainly Davis has a point of view -- he's morally outraged and against the war. But that's the value and the endgame of most documentaries. They are about points of view, presented as powerfully and compellingly (and many critics would add, disingenuously) as possible. Thus, when Davis shows us Gen. William Westmoreland making his infamous statement that "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as the Westerner," it comes just after footage of a Vietnamese boy crying inconsolably over the death of his father, killed by American attacks.

We also visit with a Vietnamese coffinmaker who talks about the boxes he has built for child victims; two Vietnamese women who grieve a sister killed by a bomb; a Vietnamese villager pointing to the crater that was once his home. Also in the movie are a number of former soldiers who have suffered from, or have become very much against, the war, such as William Marshall and Bobby Muller; and then there's the pointed testimony of former U.S. government insiders Clark Clifford and Daniel Ellsberg, whose initial support of the war effort became outright condemnation.

When he does use people from the pro-war side, Davis chooses carefully. Lt. George Coker, a former POW who returns to his home town of Linden, N.J., is shown making patriotic speeches around the country. But in a class of schoolchildren, while nuns hover in the background, he has this to say in response to a child's question about the Vietnamese countryside: "If it wasn't for the people, it would be very pretty."

"Hearts and Minds" is also the movie that enshrined the now-household images of the naked Vietnamese girl, also made famous by Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, running from a napalm attack, her body a patchwork of burns, and the infant in a woman's arms, suffering from the same injuries, skin hanging off its body. It's also the film (and a famous photograph by Eddie Adams) that shows the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong captive by a South Vietnamese police officer, followed by the horrifying spouting of blood from the dying man's head as he dies on the road.

The result of these indelible images, stunning juxtapositions and passionate testimony is a film that sears into the conscience, especially today. Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Documentary, may not have agreed with presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon on the war, but he heeded Johnson's call to fight for hearts and minds. His aim was dead on target.

HEARTS AND MINDS (Unrated, 112 minutes) -- Contains graphic war carnage and violence, obscenity, nudity, drug use and disturbing thematic material. At the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre through Nov. 4.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company