Hearts and Minds—the 1974 winner of Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards—preserves a snapshot of American attitudes about Vietnam and our casual devastation of the Vietnamese. In a concise 112 minutes, former network news producer Peter Davis sews a crazy quilt of contrary perspectives on the war which provides ample visual and logical evidence of the folly of American foreign policy which spanned the administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In a triumph of good sense, Davis applies President Lyndon B. Johnson's infamous observation that "The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there" to both sides of the war. Indeed, Hearts and Minds elicits a palpable emotional and intellectual effect.
Davis depicts agrarian life in Vietnam, unaccountably overshadowed by U.S.-sponsored brutality. The people lament lost lives, chronic unrest, and homes turned to rubble. On the home front, Davis sits with policy-makers and pawns in our decades of intervention in Southeast Asia: Walt Rostow, aide to Kennedy and Johnson; former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford; General William Westmoreland; former marine and eventual anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg; proud ex-P.O.W. Lt. George Coker; conscientious deserter Edward Sowders; and repentant ex-bomber-pilot Randy Floyd, among others. Davis catches Rostow off guard with the simple question of why Vietnam needed U.S. intervention ("Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?", while Westmoreland digs himself a hole with his generation's racist assumptions ("...the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner.").
Davis eschews narration and other intrusive effects, but lays out his argument by means of pointed editing (from a reported 200 hours of footage); Westmoreland's infamous comment follows footage of wailing Vietnamese relatives at the open graves of family members. A Vietnamese journalist explains, "This is our war of independence," and Davis cuts to American Revolution reenactors in a manicured American park. Quietly and carefully, Davis impugns the sanity of the Red Scare of the '50s and indicts America's own addiction to "kill or be killed" indoctrination and patriotic propaganda (life-or-death heartland football, marine cadet children marching in a parade).
Perhaps most powerfully, Davis lays ignorance bare even as he offers the weapons to combat it. Two G.I.s blithely dehumanize Vietnamese prostitutes; men and women on the street declaim that the less they know, the better off they'll be; a G.I. clutching his rifle in a trench grimaces: "They say we're fighting for something—I don't know." In the end, Davis captures a nation divided: protestors butting heads with a flag-waving parade. Davis's warning about the wanton building of enemies, at home and abroad, strikes the same sad note of discord forty years later.