Monday, March 16, 2009

Peter Davis' HEARTS & MINDS is back -- and we're still trying to win them

Those three resounding words hearts and minds were used back in the late 60s and early 70s as the catch-phrase for what America wanted/needed to do in Vietnam -- win over the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people so that they would finally understand what rewards awaited them if they joined us and fought the nasty North. Sure.

Peter Davis' film HEARTS & MINDS won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in April, 1975. Before that month was out, the Vietnam War had officially ended. In its day, Hearts and Minds seemed angry, provocative and on-target. While I missed the press screening for its re-release (it opens this week in NYC), I still have memories of seeing it during it's original playdate.

For those of us who had been protesting that war since soon after its beginning (for me, at least, that time was the early 60s -- though, according to Wikipedia, it began in 1959), the film presented little that was new, yet it's presentation and acceptance by much of the public seemed heartening. For those of us who had read Jean Lacouture's early warnings that the US was making a similar mistake to that made by the French in Vietnam, seeing America continue the conflict there in Southeast Asia left us angrier and more depressed as the years (more than a decade of them) continued to pass.

There has been talk afoot since the beginning of our current excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq that we were repeating our misadventure in Vietnam. Though I believe Iraq was indeed a misadventure, it seems to me that Afghanistan need not have been, though it is looking more and more like one these days. Yet, the comparison of the earlier war with the later one is wrong in many regards -- most particularly in trying to equate the secular Vietnamese (under Ho Chi Minh, fighting to keep their country from being needlessly separated) with the fundamentalist Taliban. They were/are both fighting the US to be sure, but the reasons are quite different, and the results are likely to be, as well.

It will be interesting to see the Peter Davis film again, 35 years later. If you've never seen it, you should. If you have, you're likely to be experiencing much of the same thoughts and feelings that I am and will want to take a second look -- if that look doesn't send you into a complete tailspin.

HEARTS & MINDS, digitally restored and remastered, opens March 20th at the Cinema Village in NYC, with a national rollout to follow in April.

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