The Wrong Side

A seminal anti-war documentary exposes the horrors of the United States' presence in Vietnam

At the 1975 Academy Awards, an anti-war film won for Best Documentary Feature. The war was Vietnam, and the film was Hearts & Minds, an evenhanded, matter-of-fact portrait of devastation now considered a classic of the genre. When the award was announced, the film's producer delivered a message of "greetings of friendship to all American people" from Paris, where he was a member of the Provisional Revolutionary Government delegation to the ongoing peace talks. Oops. Soon after, host Frank Sinatra read a statement denying Academy responsibility for "any political references."

It's not hard to imagine a similar fate for the 2005 awards, at which Fahrenheit 9/11 will undoubtedly be a contender. (Indeed, Academy Awards producers may already be girding their loins for the inevitable display by Michael Moore.) But Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very different film from its predecessor, relying as it does on humor, showmanship, and the running commentary of its director as vehicles for political expression. Hearts & Minds uses only its footage -- 112 minutes of interviews with soldiers and heads of state, scenes from the trenches and in the Vietnamese villages, shots of Americans at work and play in both countries, cut from more than 200 hours of tape -- to tell its story. As a result, it is far more memorable, shocking, and damning than Moore's film could ever be.

Director Peter Davis, who began his career as a news producer at NBC and CBS in the early '60s, has since made a number of award-winning documentaries, most of them appearing on television. (And he's still on the beat: Last year, he covered the Iraq War for The Nation.) In Hearts & Minds, Davis does what no televised news report can, taking the time and care to remain with a subject long enough to reveal the deep thing -- the thing that might not be immediately apparent -- and to witness the devastation in an ongoing, unflinching way. His is a camera with a long attention span. It lingers on burning villages, naked children fleeing bombs, prostitutes in bed with American soldiers, and on a pair of elderly, weeping sisters for far longer than is bearable, either for us or for them. Davis shows us what it would be like if, like those children, prostitutes, and sisters, we couldn't leave.

Hearts & Minds is rich with dramatic footage, cutting from one scene of unapologetic violence or exploitation to another. At times, it seems impossible: Can this be happening? And caught on film? But it is and it was. Davis speaks through the footage, but more than that through the edits, which slice through any jingoistic rhetoric that administration officials (or, more notably, a pro-war married couple attempting to rationalize the loss of their soldier son) can throw at the conflict. At one moment, a soldier is pinching the nipples of a prostitute, bragging about the hickeys he left on her breasts; cut to a village in the Vietnamese countryside, where another soldier holds a cigarette lighter to the thatched roof of a villager's home and waits, patiently, for the house to ignite. It burns -- the hut and the edit. Later, after a stretch at a VA hospital where soldiers are fitted with prosthetic limbs, Davis cuts to a college locker room. There, a frantic football coach throttles his players, screaming, "Don't let 'em beat us!" Conflating the college football tradition with the warrior mentality in a major motion picture? It may not be original, but it is brave.

The interviews, too, are patient and revelatory. Davis chooses several soldiers, all of whom began the war in a mood of national pride. The pilots speak with chilling candor about the pleasures of dropping bombs: "The sense of excitement, especially if you're being shot at, is incredible." Later, three of the four soldiers experience profound regret, bemoaning the injury to both them and the Vietnamese. The fourth, who managed to survive a Vietcong POW camp, retains a fealty to his country that is both steely and bizarre. In one speech to a group of mothers, he invites them to instill discipline early in their children, since it was much easier to face a "torture session with gooks" knowing that if he didn't, his mother would be disappointed in him. Gulp.

Among the public figures interviewed, activist Daniel Ellsberg is both eloquent and elegant. When discussing the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Ellsberg breaks down into tears, saying, "It began to look as though there was no way to change this country." Indeed, in his final speech, Kennedy had delivered a scathing anti-war message, owning that "For 20 years, we have been wrong."

The print of Hearts & Minds now showing is newly struck, from a recent restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Can the timing be a coincidence? So much in the film can apply today -- including its closing statement, by a soldier who once thrilled to his bombing missions: "I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and policymakers have exhibited." The documentary is excellent and deserves to endure; what a shame that its central conflict, about the U.S. military presence in a country that did not attack us, has endured as well.

 
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