Why is it that when we happen upon a "documentary" film we expect undiluted objectivity? How is that even possible, short of leaving a camera running in wide shot and without edits? Even then, the "eyes" don't explain every point of view. The very interests, causes, or passions that drive filmmakers are the very ones that serve to create a bias, often not exactly hidden. These days we are wary of the phrase "fair and balanced" because we realize any entity that makes such a statement is protesting too much. Even when someone tries to give equal time to warring parties, invariably the scale will tip.
1974's HEARTS AND MINDS, which makes no secret of its point of view, has proven to be one of the most controversial docs ever made. Nearly 40 years on, it continues to inspire extraordinarily fiery debates and inflammatory posts in periodicals and on the Internet. When this film took the Best Documentary Oscar, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra openly denounced it during the ceremony. Many films divide opinions and fan the flames, granted, but when your subject is one of the most unpopular, longest, and casualty laden wars in American history, there is a virtual built-in powderkeg. What perhaps stirs the kettle with a bit more brio are the editing choices director Peter Davis makes.
What to make of two back to back scenes, one of military commander William Westmoreland stating that "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient," and then cutting to a Vietnamese funeral, where a mother attempts to climb atop her son's casket as it is lowered? Juxtaposition such as this was also used in Michael Moore's later docs, particularly FARENHEIT 9/11. It is supremely effective, and supremely orchestrated and manipulative. But is it any different than what an attorney would do to make a case? Using the "facts" to support a particular conclusion? That's all Davis is doing here. He is bringing his case to trial, with viewers as his jury.
And he and his film are unashamedly leftist, damning the powers that be that ignited and perpetuated a senseless war. Davis interviews many key figures, one of whom smells a rat and right onscreen chasties the filmmaker, who is never seen but occasionally heard. Unlike Moore in his rabble rousing films, Davis does not provide narration, a correct choice.
Moore, who's on record as saying that HEARTS AND MINDS greatly inspired him to get into documentaries, uses his sad voice and accusations which serve to hurt his films, providing an ivory tower piety that sometimes turns the viewer, who may be even be aligned with his views, against him. I cringed while watching him in SICKO as he spoke to doctors in a hospital in Cuba, baiting them to say what he wanted, perhaps editing things out that might've muddied his viewpoint. Things are rarely black and white, and any partisan who actually thinks beyond party lines recognizes those troubling things that may undermine their points. But what does the attorney do? Presents evidence, yes, but often out of context to achieve a desired verdict.
My verdict? I think HEARTS AND MINDS is often brilliant and yes, awesomely one-sided. I've become increasingly skeptical about documentaries where interviewees are ambushed by the crew, sounding ignorant, imcompetant, or even heartless. Even if they are articulate, it's nothing that can't be fixed in post, as industry folk say. Consider the significant screen time Davis gives to George Thomas Coker, a Navy pilot captured by the Vietcong and held prisoner for over 6 years. He is shown speaking to a group of grade school children, explaining that Vietnam was a pretty place "if it wasn't for the people" and describes the Vietnamese as "backward." I wonder about the footage on the cutting room floor. Surgically precise editing, here. Like the whole film.
NOTE: HEARTS AND MINDS is the 8th and final film produced by the BBS company. The previous seven titles are included in a deluxe box set released by Criterion (and reviewed on this blog). This doc is also a Criterion selection and it was wise to offer it separately, in my opinion.