Someone once told me that there’s a historical rule that the greatest eras of documentary filmmaking have coincided with the times that the United States has been at war. So, we’d have to look at 1940-1945, 1950-1953, 1965-1973 (give or take a few years), and then 2003 to now. I suppose there’s truth to this rule — these eras of war have created cultural upheaval and political indignation, which have fostered some great doc filmmaking. Certainly, war itself provides a pretty poignant subject for a documentary. And there have been some doozies: from WW II’s The Sorrow and the Pity to Iraq’s The War Tapes and The Ground Truth. But I want to take this moment to focus on what I’d consider one of the greatest war docs of all time, Peter Davis‘ Hearts and Minds, a 1974 film that’s particularly gripping as we honor Veterans Day this week.
Hearts and Minds can feel a little dated. There are images of napalm being dropped, marching bands welcoming home soldiers, and soldiers fighting desperately. But there are two things that make the film worth a second look. The most obvious is the parallel to today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what makes it a must-see for any doc film lover, politics junkie or observer of the media is what a masterful job Davis does in bringing so many elements together and, even more than that, the incredible access he gets.
Not only does he show soldiers chatting up prostitutes in Saigon, he shows them messing around in bed with them. Not only does he score interviews with military leaders such as General Westmoreland, he also shows him making obscenely offensive remarks about how “Orientals” don’t value life the way we do. Not only does he show veterans discussing the impact of the war, he has them tearfully revealing their deepest fears.
Hearts and Minds is a title that quotes President Lyndon Johnson about winning the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam. But what becomes quickly apparent is the incredible access Davis gets to the hearts and minds of the people behind and in front of that horrible war. It’s access that doc filmmakers can’t dream of getting in this jaded, media-aware, controlled world we live in now. And, for that reason, Hearts and Minds may stand as the war documentary that is both the most comprehensive and most revealing of all time.
It might bother some how biased the film is: Davis sandwiches Westmoreland’s most offensive comments with images of grieving Vietnamese families. It’s an unapologetic film from one man’s point-of-view. But I found that the style with which Davis cuts the interviews — in a truncated fashion — works. It is a filmmaker’s epic essay on war. And I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again.