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USA 1974
Directed by
Peter Davis
110 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Hearts And Minds

That Hearts and Minds won the Best Documentary Oscar for its portrayal of America’s involvement in Vietnam despite the fact that it is provocatively critical of the Establishment is testament to the spirit of the times (the Academy issued a statement, read during the awards ceremony by Frank Sinatra, that it did not endorse the views made by the producers during their acceptance speech) but it is also a masterful presentation of the anti-Vietnam and indeed anti-war position (and for modern audiences there are immediate parallels with America’s involvement in the Middle East).

A brilliantly orchestrated mix of archival and purpose-shot footage combined with interviews conducted with a wide range of observers and participants, on both sides of the political divide, the film presents a devastating image of the ideological and cultural prejudices underpinning America's involvement, sometimes expressed explicitly in staggeringly fatuous terms by key figures such as General William Westmoreland stating  that "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as the Westerner", sometimes merely implicit as in the statements by ordinary Americans that the war didn’t affect them personally in any way. 

Davis skilfully assembles his material to highlight the bitter ironies of the pro-war position (a good example is the film’s title, which is taken from a speech by President Johnson in which he maintains that victory "will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there", something which the Americans never actually took into account).  Also included to great effect are Vietnamese citizens - a father grieving the death of his eight year old daughter, killed by American air attacks; two Vietnamese women who remember a sister killed by a bomb and so on - as well as Americans combatants whose eyes were gradually opened to the travesty taking place.

Some of the footage is astonishing and includes the famous sequences of a naked Vietnamese girl, her clothes and skin burnt off by napalm running towards American soldiers and the stunning point-blank execution of a Viet Cong by a South Vietnamese officer.

Hearts and Minds is a remarkable work that together with Apocalypse Now stands as the best films ever made on the folly and horror of the Vietnam War




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