Hearts and Minds – Blu-Ray Review

Hearts and Minds is a documentary about the Vietnam War, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1974. It was almost unheard of the time for a “popular” documentary to get the prize, but this came after Woodstock’s win in 1970 which opened the door.

It was a very important film, one of the first major documentaries about the war (which has since become something of a cottage industry). It had a complicated history of getting to distribution, so BBS Productions (founded by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) bought the film back and distributed it through Warner Bros, which was a bit more willing to risk the potential political flak around the film than Columbia had been. Henry Jaglom and Howard Zucker combined with Schneider to get the rights.

Hearts and Minds is a mixture of interviews with veterans, people from the government and footage from Vietnam, and is pretty damning regarding the US involvement in the war. By the time it was being seen, the US was about to pull out, so much of the detail was well known, but it certainly exerted some influence on public opinion.

It is somewhat dated with its focus on the US side – Ken Burns’ recent The Vietnam War is more nuanced in its presentation of more perspectives, but of course the ten-part documentary series course has more room due to its length. At the time, Hearts and Minds included a great deal of footage that had not yet been seen by the public, who had been served up an edited version of the war on the TV news.

The film came out after the Pentagon Papers had been leaked, which inspired Peter Davies. Of course, Kissinger (how on earth is this fucker still alive? does he feed off the blood of dead babies or something!), Nixon and McNamara turned down the filmmakers’ offersfor interviews! The biggest issue was an interview with Walt Rostow, a security advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was perceived as damaging to Rostow’s image, and there were efforts to block it.

While Burns’s series has a lot more content and is able to take a different perspective on the events due to the passage of time, Hearts and Minds has its own points of interest. As one of the very first US efforts to document the war, it was groundbreaking, and it still holds up pretty well. It’s also an entertaining film, with interesting editing techniques used. Michael Moore has always said it was the main influence on his work, and you can see that, even though his approach is very different.

Extras on the Criterion release include a commentary from director Peter Davis and over two hours of unused footage. The booklet features essays by Davis, film critic Judith Crist and the historians Robert K. Brigham, George C. Herring and Ngo Vinh Long.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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