Sensation and selfflagellation

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Today, Hearts and Minds is an accepted masterpiece of political documentary filmmaking, and is widely regarded as the definitive American documentary about the war in Vietnam. Recent international events, most notably America's troubled war in Iraq, have brought it renewed attention and plaudits.

Hollywood's new enfant terrible, Michael Moore, for one, claims Hearts and Minds was the inspiration behind his critique of post-Cold War American imperialism, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). When Hearts and Minds was re-released on DVD and at the cinema in 2004, Peter Davis, who had recently reported from Baghdad for the Nation, suggested his film should be compulsory viewing for the Bush administration. New York's alternative weekly, the Village Voice, concurred and argued that the movie represented 'a vital link in a subversive people's cinema, clearly realigning history as a never ending series of crimes perpetrated by the powerful upon the innocent'.35

Quite what the effect was that Hearts and Minds had in America back in the mid-1970s is open to dispute. In one respect the movie was perfectly timed. Barely two weeks after it was awarded an Oscar in early April 1975, the last American was dramatically airlifted by helicopter off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, as the city fell to North Vietnamese forces. Hearts and Minds certainly created a sensation amongst journalists, who, despite the withdrawal of most American troops from Vietnam in 1973, were still bitterly divided over the rights and wrongs of US policy in Southeast Asia. Predictably enough, radical opponents of the war like Andrew Kopkind called it 'brave and brilliant', while liberal commentators such as Frances Fitzgerald, who had recently written a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the war, Fire in the Lake (1972), thought the film was 'the truth of the matter'.

Equally predictably, others on the political right hated it. The National Review's Joseph Sobran, for instance, called it 'disingenuously one-sided' and 'a cinematic lie'.36 Some mainstream newspapers and movie critics felt the film was morbid and manipulative propaganda, with no 'bad' Vietnamese in it.37 Interestingly, one of the country's most influential critics, Stefan Kanfer, thought Davis' examination of anti-communist popular culture one of the movie's weakest points. 'The notion that films so easily mold an audience trivializes evil', he stated.38 However, most commentators declared Hearts and Minds a profoundly moving and powerfully persuasive movie.39 Vincent Canby in the New York Times declared it 'the true film for America's bicentennial'. Playboy's critic was more to the point: 'shame is the only civilised

response'.

The media attention Hearts and Minds attracted undoubtedly increased public interest in the film. The movie's box office was probably boosted further by the fact that reviews of the film were read aloud to both houses of the US Congress. Press reports of American Legionnaires in Connecticut tearing up theatre seats probably did no harm either.41 Bert Schneider's publicity stunt at the Academy Awards ceremony might have backfired to some extent, by adding to the false charge made by some critics that his movie was didactic and pro-communist. ('Is Picasso's Guernica Communist propaganda?', he retorted.)42 However, in the days immediately afterwards, box office takings tripled in Los Angeles and almost doubled in New York. Moreover, Hearts and Minds was the first Vietnam documentary to be released in the US by a major distributor, Warner Bros. This, plus the Oscar itself, played a vital role in helping the movie to achieve a breadth of distribution and exhibition rarely given to documentaries. Even in upscale urban theatres, though, the movie was probably preaching mainly to the converted, rather than actually sparking a meaningful debate more widely about America's Cold War stance. This was the price Davis paid for moving from the small to the big screen. Had Hearts and Minds aired on television, its audience would have been more heterogeneous, and its societal impact greater.43

Bert Schneider, for one, was convinced his film had had a significant political impact. Tellingly however, his only evidence for this were the hundreds of peace activists who had informed him how Hearts and Minds had shed new light on the Vietnam War and had consequently rekindled their concern about the conflict's roots. If the movie really had stirred Americans into revising their views on US foreign policy, we might have expected this to translate into significant interest in Hearts and Minds overseas. (This was one of the explanations for Fahrenheit 9/11's international success, for instance.)44 Yet when it was released in one Canadian city — Kingston, Ontario — in 1976, fewer than 400 people went to see Hearts and Minds in the first week (compared with the 4,000 people who had watched the fictional gore and violence of Tobe Hooper's low-budget horror The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the city in the same period). Across the Atlantic, in Britain, the movie was only screened once in London, as a fundraiser for an avant-garde distributor. Behind the Iron Curtain, the film was shown at the 1975 Moscow Film Festival. Schneider, who was there unofficially representing the United States, was asked by Soviet filmmakers why he had not been shot.45 The pleasure Schneider took from this masked the fact that, at the end of the day, documentaries were an acquired taste for even avid cinema-goers.

That such a traditionally conservative body as the Motion Picture Academy felt it could award an Oscar to a film which questioned the very basis of US foreign policy is a measure of the political distance Hollywood had travelled in the twenty years since the McCarthy era. Yet it could equally be said that Hearts and Minds was something of a fluke, the result of a maverick producer being given free rein by a major production company that discovered the nature of the project too late to cancel. Even then, it is highly unlikely a company such as Warner Bros. — the studio which had backed The Green Berets — would have touched the film while American troops were actually in combat in Vietnam or in North Vietnamese prisons. Another critical Vietnam War documentary made in 1972, Winter Soldier, which was produced and partly funded by Jane Fonda, never found a distributor in the United States, probably because the conflict was on-going.46

As subversive as Hearts and Minds was, therefore, especially in its implication that motion pictures had been instruments of Cold War behavioural conditioning (though, interestingly, not in association with government), when it was released the film was already dated. It was a belated reaction to what had gone wrong in Southeast Asia and could therefore do nothing to change the course of the Vietnam War. By the mid-1970s, the time was right for Americans and Hollywood to parade their guilt, or 'shame' as Playboy put it, about Vietnam, if only because it helped bring closure to the whole sorry story of the war. The recent emergence of a new and more visible threat to American interests — international terrorism — hastened this process. Due to a series of hijackings and assassinations in the mid-1970s, some aimed at Western support for Israel, many Americans' political radar had shifted away from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. '[T]he name of the fear now is not so much War as Terror', wrote well-known critic Andrew Sarris in his perceptive review of Hearts and Minds, 'not so much strategic bombing as satchel bombs.' Who needed another film about Vietnam that raked over old coals, Sarris was saying, when unity was needed against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Black September and other like-minded terrorist organisations.47

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