Republic of Suffering
Parallels between this nation’s longest-ever war and its current involvements are rife. It is hardly coincidence that, restored from 35 and 16 mm originals, Hearts & Minds is to be re-released, for this is the controversial 1974 Oscar documentary that popularized the title phrase from an LBJ speech.
“Not only the best documentary [but] maybe the best movie I have ever seen,” should be taken with consideration of the source, Michael Moore. Oddly, print and television journalist Peter Davis takes an approach far different from Moore’s auteur-as-guide/main-character, in that the director/co-producer does not appear nor in fact does he or anyone else narrate.
Instead, ideas are presented in visuals and participants’ words by means of a technique of quick cutting and contrasts which underscore or undermine. Other, subsidiary camera methods are used, as well, some of them too tricky and obvious, such as the headshots of former combatants which in subsequent segments are slowly zoomed back to reveal paralyzed legs, a wheelchair or prosthetic arm.
Done during steep dividedness here at home and prior to the humiliating withdrawal, the film is non-partisan in that its own heart lies in social, rather than political, observation. Not that there are not many brief inserts of national and international leaders and pundits, but the vile nature and societal cost of war are the focus, strengthened in counterpoint to the pronouncements of suits and ties.
Of the numerous public faces that do appear, mainly two develop larger conclusions which have since gained wide currency. A woman asks why governments cannot, like individuals, admit mistakes, and Washington attorney and Johnson adviser Clark Clifford confesses, “I could not have been more wrong [about] the false domino theory.” Unable to continue on recalling his final meeting with and speech for candidate Robert Kennedy, ex-Pentagon officer Daniel Ellsberg maintains that the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations lied about the nature and depth of our involvement in Indochina, a “tribute” to an American decency that might have balked at the truth but also to its being so easily hornswoggled.
Above political and economic interests in Washington and Saigon, however, H&M considers the effects of warfare -- in this first major deployment of First World technology in and against an underdeveloped nation -- on the pawns on the ground, that is, on troops, on their home front loved ones, and on the indigenous civilians trapped in the conflict.
Surprising even though outside the thesis is that the war’s two most frozen-in-memory still photos are single frames from equally emotional, longer sequences -- Eddie Adams’ of a summary street execution, and Nick Út’s of a naked napalm-burned nine-year-old girl (the moving pictures actually by two other photojournalists). The famous and those who became so, and the stock color bombardment footage, nevertheless, are backseat to the unsung and their stories, individual and collective reminders that war targets societies, families, and lives and that, however glorified in speeches and in included movie clips, it maims, scars, kills, traumatizes.
Ahead of the pack, Davis illustrates the human toll on “victor” and “vanquished.” Set against patriotic parades, real Revolutionary War reenactments and bellicose Ohio football pep talks -- George S. Patton (whose grandson is in this film) urged his invasion troops on to “the greatest sporting competition of all time” -- are former U.S. fighters who did not conceive of what was happening at the receiving end of the high-tech shooting gallery; Native- and African-Americans who sought equality back here by firing guns over there; or those who are unquestioning of the racist-tinged patriotic obedience taught by mothers, schools and society; or who deserted but, tired of hiding, testify at Congressional Hearings on Amnesty. There are Americans who attend rallies pro or con, or truckers who don’t know or care which side we’re on, and parents who seek consolation in the rightness of our cause for which their son made the supreme sacrifice.
Born on the Fourth of July for Nam and Body of War for Iraq chronicle the anguish of paralyzed GIs’ re-entry, but Hearts & Minds does for both sides. It has its combat, Zippos lighting thatched roofs, suspected Cong being kicked and villagers stampeded, prostitutes and a self-admitted war-profiteer or partying South Vietnamese businessmen or politicians; there are also the defiant words, the stupefied or unbearable wailed grief, the blood and mutilated bodies of the non-combatant population. The images are not sermonized but speak volumes.
The enemy “other” is dehumanized or demonized. Davis’ thesis-by-counterpoint closes with General Westmoreland in civvies affirming that Orientals do not value life as highly as Westerners do, prior to ARVN burials nearly unwatchable in the mother forcibly removed from inside her son’s grave and in the young boy who showers tears and kisses on his father’s photo on a wooden coffin.
Of another civil war, ours, General Sherman knew from experience. “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
(Released by Rainbow Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)