Friday, March 20, 2009

'Hearts and Minds' — A film for today

“Great news,” writes my friend Louis Proyect on his blog “The Unrepentant Marxist”. “Two of the outstanding documentaries of the Vietnam War era are now available, one in the theaters and the other on DVD. ‘Hearts and Minds’ opens at the Cinema Village [in New York City] today and is not only the finest documentary of the period, but arguably the finest political documentary ever made. You can also order ‘FTA’ from Netflix, a movie that both documents Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s legendary challenge to Bob Hope’s UFO shows and the amazing response of active-duty GI’s who by 1971 were sick and tired of Hope’s cheesy, warmongering ‘entertainment’, and more importantly the war it cheered on.

“Michael Moore goes even further than me,” Louis continues. “He calls Peter Davis’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ the best movie ever and adds that it was the movie that inspired him to pick up a camera. Indeed, you see what an influence it was on Moore and indirectly on so many other documentary film-makers who when they were imitating Moore were truly imitating Peter Davis. One of the brilliant insights of ‘Hearts and Minds’ is to use footage of old newsreels and movies that reflected the Red Scare mentality that made the Vietnam War possible, a device used by Moore and so many other directors. There is nothing like a brief scene from a McCarthyite warhorse like ‘My Son John’ to remind you how deep the paranoia ran in the 1950s and remained enough of a force to allow people like LBJ to sell the war to the American people.”

For the rest of Louis’s review of both these flics, go to Hearts and Minds; FTA. As it happens, I reviewed Hearts and Minds many years ago, when it was first making waves politically. Here is my review, which was published (under a pseudonym) in the April 28, 1975 issue of Intercontinental Press, then a newsweekly magazine published in New York. Hearts and Minds is not, to my knowledge, scheduled for showing in Canada at this point, but it can be downloaded over the internet. Well worth seeing, even as a repeat, as Obama cranks up his war in Afghanistan and the Canadian and other NATO forces there confront their failure to win “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

(As I write this, four more Canadian soldiers are reported killed in Afghanistan, and the Harper government has just banned antiwar U.K. member of Parliament George Galloway from entering Canada to speak against the war.)

– Richard Fidler

The Antiwar Film That Won an Oscar

‘Hearts and Minds’

Reviewed by Robert Dumont

[Intercontinental Press, April 28, 1975]

From the beginning, Hearts and Minds was controversial. Acclaimed last year at Cannes, the film was shelved while rumors mounted that Columbia Pictures was holding back its release on political grounds. The hawkish New York Daily News refused to print Rex Reed’s rave review. The New York Times headlined an article, “First An Undeclared War, Now An Unseen Film.”

But there is a ready market today for a good antiwar film, and Hearts and Minds, now being distributed by Warner Brothers, is making the rounds of movie houses in the United States and Canada.

And on April 8 it won this year’s Academy Award in the “best documentary” category.

Hearts and Minds is powerful propaganda, in the best sense of that word. The film traces the roots of Washington’s involvement in Vietnam back to the end of the Second World War and the emergence of the United States as the strongest imperialist power. News documentary footage shows Truman, Eisenhower, and Dulles each defending France’s attempt to hold on to its Indochinese possession. (Eisenhower explains that Vietnam is strategically important for its “tin and tungsten.”)

One after another, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon proclaim their government’s intention to “win the war.” A vignette much appreciated by American audiences today shows Nixon presenting Thieu to the press at Honolulu as “one of the greatest presidents I know.”

Three decades of involvement in “the big muddy”—but when an interviewer asked Walt W. Rostow, a former adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, why the United States was in Vietnam, Rostow explodes, “You don’t really expect me to answer that goddamn question..., “ and begins to mutter incoherently.

The strongest aspect of Hearts and Minds is its portrayal of the brutality and destructiveness of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. This was a civil war, Daniel Ellsberg explains in an interview, but once the United States entered, it became a war between the Pentagon and virtually the whole Vietnamese people.

The genocidal nature of the war is shown in a succession of images that contrast the impersonal technology of aggression and the inhuman attitudes of the Pentagon protagonists with the suffering of the Vietnamese victims. Scenes of B-52s dropping swaths of 500-pound bombs alternate with the grief and rage of a North Vietnamese peasant whose daughter has been cut to pieces by antipersonnel bombs.

In one of the most poignant scenes, an elderly Vietnamese woman, whose sister, home, and possessions have been destroyed by bombs, begins to weep quietly as she tells us that now she has nothing to sell, that she is too old to do anything, that she is quite simply “so unhappy.”

Tankers fly low over rice paddies dropping clouds of defoliants; a carpenter who is building tiny coffins for children explains that many people in his village have become seriously ill and some have died from eating poisoned vegetables and fruit.

A returned U.S. prisoner of war, giving a gung-ho address to schoolchildren in New Jersey, responds to their question “What was Vietnam like?” with, “Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty.”

A deeply moving scene of children grieving at the graves of their parents in a cemetery near Saigon is followed by retired General Westmoreland, beside a quiet pond on his antebellum Southern estate, telling us, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same price on life as the Westerner.”

Effective use of flashbacks, interviews, and the intersplicing of old war films and newsreels enhances the impact of Hearts and Minds. But the film’s real strength is the story itself. Producers Peter Davis and Bert Schneider have put together a powerful portrayal of the horror of the war, and the awesome might of the U.S. war machine.

Less effective is the film’s attempt to explain why Washington did not win in Vietnam. Its portrayal of the opposition forces in Vietnam is rather sketchy, limited to interviews with Buddhist monks and a Catholic priest, and an excerpt from a North Vietnamese propaganda film of “Uncle Ho” being greeted by small children with happy faces. There is certainly enough said in the film to indicate clearly why the United States could not win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. But what finally forced U.S. imperialism to pull back?

Antiwar GIs and veterans explain their revulsion at the war. Clark Clifford, Johnson’s war secretary, tells us that “I could not have been more wrong” to support the war. But even putting aside any doubts as to Clifford’s credentials as a latter-day dove, the question remains: What made Clifford come to that conclusion?

In what amounts to a good summary of one of the film’s basic themes, Daniel Ellsberg tells an interviewer: “It’s a tribute to the American public that its leaders knew they had to be lied to. It’s not a tribute that it was so easy to be lied to.”

But was it so easy? No war in U.S. history was so unpopular. Millions of Americans from the beginning questioned what their political leaders were doing in Vietnam. Among the earliest manifestations of the antiwar sentiment were the giant teach-ins, in which students sought to find out the truth about the Vietnamese revolution and Washington’s attempts to roll it back.

By 1971, polls indicated that a clear majority of Americans were opposed to the war. A key factor in staying the Pentagon’s hand was the creation and growth of powerful antiwar movement that mobilized in the streets in massive demonstrations around the theme “Out now!”

Hearts and Minds barely indicates this important aspect of the war. It suggests instead that “we are all accomplices.” The audience is shown many prowar rallies. But there is only one brief shot of an antiwar demonstration in the whole film.

Despite this weakness, Hearts and Minds is an impelling indictment of Washington’s war. It is not hard to agree with a reviewer in a leading Canadian daily who wrote that if a film like this had been made earlier, “and especially if it had been made on the major television networks,” the war might have ended much earlier.

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