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Jun 20 2007

Film reviews: Hearts and Minds and Medium Cool

Film reviews are usually about films that have been newly released. Since I am almost never the first to see any film, my reviews deal with very old but good or interesting films that people may have not seen the first time around but can do so now, thanks to the easy availability tapes and DVDs. I see these reviews as pointing out films to those who may not know what they are missing.

Here are reviews of two old films that I saw recently that dealt with the time during the Vietnam war.

Hearts and Minds (1974)

This has to be one of the best war documentaries ever, winning an Academy Award in 1975. It was filmed during 1972 and 1973, at a time when American combat troops had been largely withdrawn from the battlefield and ‘Vietnamization’, the process by which the South Vietnamese army was being built up and trained by the US to replace it in fighting against the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army, was well underway. The editing of the film was completed in 1974, just before the complete collapse of that US-trained army began, and was released late in 1975, the year in which South Vietnam was completely overrun, Saigon captured, and the country unified under the government in Hanoi.

At the time the film was being made, US public opinion had turned against the war and the US was clearly facing defeat. Director Peter Davis said that he set out to address three questions: “Why did we invade Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the war do to us?”

The director deliberately omitted a voice-over narration, to avoid the ‘voice of god’ effect common to documentaries As a result, there is little explanatory filler material and this might make the sequence of events a little hard to follow for people for whom the Vietnam war is ancient history and the people interviewed (such as Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Daniel Ellsberg, William Westmoreland) are unfamiliar. This would have not been a problem when the film was released since the events were fresh. But since the film is largely about the effects of war rather than a historical analysis, this lack of detailed information does not affect the film’s power.

When I first saw the film (in 1976, I think) it made a huge impact on me. The immense tragedy of the wanton destruction of a people and a country and the passionless cruelty of the bombing and the napalming showed an ugliness to war that left a searing impression. During the Vietnam war, news crews were free to roam the battlefield and so you had plenty of footage of the effects of the bombing and the shattered lives and property of the people at the receiving end of it. You also saw the casual brutality of the occupying forces towards the people of Vietnam.

The US military learned from that experience not to allow journalists such free access in future wars and nowadays, with ‘embedded’ journalists, one gets largely the sanitized point of view of the military, boasting about the sophistication of its weaponry, and avoiding showing what a devastating effect war has on ordinary people, killing people, destroying homes, and tearing apart entire communities.

I was doubtful if the film would have the same impact on me thirty years later but it did. The interviews with villagers whose family members had been killed, their mud and thatch homes set on fire or brought to rubble by high altitude bombings were heartbreaking. The sequence near the end of a little boy’s grief during the funeral of his father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was almost unwatchable because of the naked emotion on display. The interviews with the US soldiers and bomber pilots who fought in the war, some now sad and angry and bitter at what they had done, what they had become, and what had happened to them, others still gung-ho, showed the effects of war on those who carry out the orders to fight.

In the end, the film provides answers to the questions “What did we do there? What did the war do to us?” but the first question “Why did we invade Vietnam?” remains unanswered, even to this day, just like the question “Why did the US invade Iraq?”

In fact, the parallels with Iraq are eerie. By 1968 or so, it was clear that US policy makers had realized that Vietnam was ‘lost.’ But rather than admit it and stop the war, they hoped to create some distance from the looming defeat by withdrawing US combat troops and replacing them with South Vietnamese forces so that when the end came, the US might avoid being seen as the loser. But in order to provide cover for the withdrawal, they unleashed a massive bombing campaign (including the infamous ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi that destroyed hospitals and other civilians targets) that created enormous additional casualties and destruction. The film argues that this bombing was largely meant for US domestic consumption, to signify that the US retained muscular power, although the US the government had already accepted the fact that the forces opposed to them would never give up until they achieved full victory.

We can see the same thing happening in Iraq now. I suspect that the US government has realized that Iraq is ‘lost’ and is desperately seeking a way to disengage from the fighting while still maintaining a significant military presence in the massive permanent bases it is building there. The training of the Iraqi forces and the “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” mantra are the equivalent of ‘Vietnamization’. There is also currently a escalation of the bombing campaign in Iraq, largely unreported in the US, creating an increasing number of civilian deaths. Even railway stations are being bombed. As William S. Lind observes, increased bombing is usually a sign of failure: “Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing. If anyone still wonders whether the “surge” is working, the increase in air strikes offers a definitive answer: it isn’t.”

Hearts and Minds is a landmark film and should be seen by everyone. I was so startled that it could provoke such strong emotions in me after so many years that I did something I never do, which is watch the film yet again, this time with the director’s commentary on, to see what went into the making of it.

Medium Cool (1969)

The other film that dealt, although not directly, with the Vietnam war was Medium Cool. This film tells a Chicago TV newsman’s story in the turbulent year 1968, which saw the Tet offensive in Vietnam, massive antiwar protests in the US that led to President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley essentially created a police state during the Democratic Party convention, complete with tanks and armored carriers patrolling the streets, and riot police clashing with demonstrators. The film captures the contrast between what was going on in the convention hall with balloons and streamers and party hats and speeches, and the pandemonium and mayhem in the streets just outside.

The film tries to capture the mood of the times, when TV was becoming ubiquitous in people’s lives. Its director was Haskell Wexler, the acclaimed cinematographer, and it was natural for him to try to portray the events of that time through the eyes of a TV journalist.

Like most cinematographers, Haskell Wexler’s name is largely unknown to the general public but he has been behind the camera of so many high-quality and well-known films that he has to be ranked among the best at his craft.

I would not call this is a great film. But it captures a slice of life during a very turbulent time in the US.

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