Hearts and Minds at the MFA

When Francis Ford Coppola famously said in 1979 that his film Apocalypse Now “is not about Vietnam-it is Vietnam,” it revealed a hopeless lack of perspective on the part of the director. While the production of the movie was notoriously chaotic, neither the filming nor the final product came close to capturing what America’s first lost war was all about.

No film truly can, of course, but the 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds is more gut-wrenching and truthful than any of the Hollywood films about the conflict. It is being screened by director Peter Davis at the Museum of Fine Arts on March 6, followed by a question-and-answer segment.

In the discussion over the best ‘Nam films, Hearts and Minds tends to get overshadowed by the more popular and critically-acclaimed narrative fare that was released in the late 1970s, including Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Coppola’s epic. But while those films were criticized for their excess and inaccuracy, as in The Deer Hunter’s historically undocumented Russian roulette prisoner-of-war scenes, Hearts and Minds uses only real footage and interviews, to greater effect.

It can’t be said that it is an unbiased depiction. Without a doubt, the war is presented as an absurdly brutal act of American imperialism and hubris. But the footage assembled is so damning and powerful that the film makes the case tragically well.

Scenes of jingoistic and sometimes racist U.S. troops are juxtaposed against clips of destroyed Vietnamese villages and farms. In another moment, a Navy lieutenant speaks to a group of young schoolchildren and tells them, “The people [of Vietnam] are very backward and very primitive and they just make a mess out of everything.”

It is, however, the American mindset that is shown to be ignorant, with the film suggesting that paranoid fears about communism got the US into the war, while a lack of understanding and caring about the Vietnamese justified the continued violence.

With films about the ongoing Iraq fiasco failing in all respects, filmgoers should instead check out this brilliant documentary about a war that the United States sadly didn’t learn their lessons from.