Art serves many purposes in this society, but one of its fundamental raisons d’etre is to kick people in the ass -- to knock them out of indifference. Most of us cannot help but get caught up in quotidian concerns -- the daily grind, the media, other people’s lives, etc. We lead lives, labor, raise children, and with any leftover time, we spend with our friends and families. It is the artist’s job to wake us from these habits, make us take a step back and look at it all.
Peter Davis’s 1974 classic Hearts and Minds is a film that accomplishes this task. The film chronicles the collective psyche of the American people during the era of the Vietnam War. The film wrests us from our haze by showing how we Americans got involved in this war and the implications of our actions -- that we did what we did to people. And, in what may be the most important message of the film, Davis makes explicit that Americans did not, do not, want to face up to this reality.
That people did not want to face up to the horror is not surprising. It is human necessity to want to forget, to move on, and to be happy. But if we never create a national dialogue in which we try to understand how we got into this mess and how we can avoid getting into another one, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes (as our contemporary War on Terror has shown).
Davis also makes clear in Hearts and Minds that he believes the emphasis on masculinity in our culture has as much to do with our problems as anything. He shows examples of this using soldiers and their families, high school football players, coaches, and cheerleaders. The argument is a made all the more powerful by the filmmaker’s skilled use of montage.
And what about the war? The filmmakers’ access to Vietnam and the Vietnamese certainly adds much to the film's context and broadens our human identification with the country through evocative imagery. Through the interviews with Vietnamese men and women, old and young, we understand that war not only kills (as the film famously shows), it destroys lives.
It is a shame that Hearts and Minds isn’t being screened nationally year-round. However, Rainbow Film Company has done the next best thing, a public service, in remastering and re-releasing America’s version of the The Sorrow and the Pity, giving us the opportunity to view it for the first or fifteenth time. No matter how many times I see Hearts and Minds, I will not cease to be amazed by its mindfulness and craft, as well as its poignancy for citizens of any nation that wields hubris, bigotry, and economic and military power.