Hearts and Minds
A startling and courageous film, Peter Davis’s landmark 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds unflinchingly confronted the United States’ involvement in Vietnam at the height of the controversy that surrounded it. Using a wealth of sources—from interviews to newsreels to footage of the conflict and the upheaval it occasioned on the home front—Davis constructs a powerfully affecting picture of the disastrous effects of war. Explosive, persuasive, and wrenching, Hearts and Minds is an overwhelming emotional experience and the most important nonfiction film ever made about this devastating period in history.
Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds gets a surprising upgrade from Criterion, who present the film in a new dual-format edition in the original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc while a new standard-definition version is on the first dual-layer DVD. The latter transfer has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
It looks like the exact same high-definition transfer used for the original DVD has been used here as well. The improvements are noticeable in both the high-definition and standard-definition presentations, though in both cases it may not be as large as one would hope.
Colours still look muted and rather faded in both versions, and there isn’t much of a detectable improvement in this area. The film is a mix of new footage with stock footage and film clips, so the quality of the source materials varies. As a whole the film actually has very little damage present (a surprise considering the nature of the film and how it was shot in some cases,) some footage still contains large marks, scratches, hairs, and instances of debris. They’re not too frequent mind you but they pop up regularly enough. In comparison to the old DVD it looks like further restoration has been done, but not substantially more.
As to the digital transfers themselves both the DVD and Blu-ray’s are fairly solid. For the Blu-ray detail is better, though not markedly so, more than likely a limitation of the source materials. But the Blu-ray at least looks more filmic, is cleaner in rendering the grain structure, and the image overall is certainly smoother and lacks any of the compression issues present on the old DVD.
The DVD looks to have received a new encode and looks pretty good for what it is, but it’s improvements over the older DVD are minimal. Some of the ringing around screen text and burnt in subtitles has subsided quite a bit in comparison to the old DVD, and the pixilation and noise that was present around some objects has been removed. But these issues weren’t too bad to begin with, so the new DVD only offers a mild improvement that is probably only noticeable on bigger televisions. Otherwise the transfers look very similar.
Considering the nature of the film I wasn’t expecting some lush looking presentation and more or less got what I expected, but I didn’t expect both of the new presentations to look so close to the old one, which in all fairness was still pretty strong.
The film’s mono track is presented in lossless PCM mono on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital on the DVD. Overall quality is rather good and the track can be shockingly robust in places. All participants can be heard clearly and the music does show up is of decent quality (where age allows it) and there isn’t any noticeable damage.
When the original DVD was first announced it was initially conceived as a 2-disc edition featuring over 2-hours’ worth of deleted scenes. Just before it was released this footage was dropped from the edition (I can’t find the original reasons but if I recall it had to do with rights of some sort) and it was released as a single disc edition with only a commentary as the special feature. With this new version Criterion finally includes those outtakes, about 147-minutes’ worth out of the supposed 200-hours of footage that was shot. A text introduction explains why this footage ultimately wasn’t used, in a few instances it was because a few of the participants here objected to the war from the get-go and in most cases Davis wanted people who were originally for it but changed their tune over the years.
All of the footage is presented in its raw form in a ratio of about 1.33:1. There are a few moments throughout where the visual will drop (I assume because Davis ran out of film and was changing reels) but the audio remains. The footage has been divided into 8 sections and each one receives their own text notes explaining the footage or giving a brief bio for the participant.
Four of the subjects don’t appear in the film, and they all objected to the war from the beginning. These participants are French journalist Philippe Devillers (11-min), former Undersecretary of State George Ball (20-min), Tony Russo (34-min), and broadcast journalist David Brinkley (26-min). Devillers’ provides a bit of background to how The U.S. came to be involved in the conflict while Ball talks about his opposition to the war and how he tried as best as he could to minimize damage and casualties when going over bombing strategies. Here he would go over plans and indicate whether civilian casualties would be too high or the target wasn’t worthwhile, hoping that would possibly stop the mission, though the final decision was with the president.
Russo had worked for the RAND Corporation, a government contractor, and he, along with Daniel Ellsberg, released the documents that came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers” to the media, which exposed the States’ true role in the war. Russo talks about first working with RAND and then coming across the documents. Brinkley’s segment offers a wonderful analysis of television’s role in reporting on the war, offering for the first time the true horrors of war to the audience. He also talks about the media’s responsibility in delivering the news, such as how the news should not provide “opinion” on subjects: despite his distaste in the war he should never indicate that while reporting the news. His segment is especially illuminating, managing to, 40-years earlier, point out everything wrong with the media’s role in the news today.
Both General William Westmoreland and economist Walt Roston appear in the film, but more interview footage has been included here for both, running 26-minutes and 24-minutes respectively, with Roston’s appearing as audio-only footage over a still of him from the film. The two are both on the pro-war camp, with Roston being especially supportive. Westmoreland talks about how he perceived the enemy and also talks about, if briefly, why things like the My Lai massacre (where around 500 civilians were murdered at the hands of U.S. soldiers) occurred, though I don’t think he really wants to get into the topic (unsurprisingly) and ultimately says it was because the “chain of command broke down.” From the outside it appears Westmoreland doesn’t question the war, but certain comments (like where he questions the intelligence of his higher-ups at the time) make it obvious he doesn’t think many knew what they were doing.
There is then some location footage included here. First is over 5-minutes worth of footage from a funeral in Quang Nam. The reason it wasn’t used was because another funeral was used in the film, but it’s no less upsetting (the notes mention is especially upset the crew.) And then finally 3-minutes of footage from the Cong Hoa hospital, showing injured South Vietnamese soldiers. The footage can be fairly graphic, particularly that of a soldier with burns all over his body. It’s disturbing footage, though it was not used because Davis couldn’t find a proper context for it.
What we get ultimately represents only a small fraction of the footage shot, but Davis and Criterion have gathered together some excellent material that expands on and adds to the subjects covered in the film. It’s nice to finally have it here.
Criterion then carries over the same audio commentary recorded by Davis in 2001. It’s more of a technical track but no less fetching as Davis talks about filming on location, gathering together subjects, and then the huge undertaking in editing all of the filmed footage together and finding the “story” so to speak. He talks a bit about the controversies around the film and also gets into his thoughts on the war here and there and shares other stories and anecdotes about filming. I hadn’t listened to it since the DVD was released in 2002 and I enjoyed listening to it again. Davis keeps the track engaging and informative with very little dead space, providing some wonderful details on constructing this film. Well worth the listen.
All supplements are available on the Blu-ray. The first DVD only presents the audio commentary, while the second dual-layer DVD hosts all of the outtakes.
Criterion’s booklet is more-or-less the same as the previous DVD’s. This booklet now begins with Davis’ essay “Vietnam and Memory”, which concluded the previous booklet, and here it has been modified quite a bit, either clarifying some things or bringing up more about the conflict in the Middle East, talking about the effect the war had on everyone, including the general public.
The same essay on the film and its construction by the late Judith Crist also appears, followed by Robert K. Brigham’s essay on the film being the first real one to humanize the Vietnamese people to the American public. Both appear to be the same as the previous ones when I did a quick compare. Also carried over is George C. Herring’s short essay on the conflict also gets carried over, offering some contextualization for those still confused by the war and its intent. The essay has been tweaked with some sentence restructuring and updates around dates (instead of “25 years ago” we get “40 years ago”) but it is otherwise the same. The booklet then concludes with the same article by Ngo Vinh Long about the war from the point of view of the Vietnamese people. Bobby Muller’s quote about the film is also presented on the back of the booklet.
Similar to before the booklet is an excellent inclusion, providing more context and a generally decent summary of the conflict for those still confused by it.
It’s nice to finally get the edition Criterion originally conceived and as it is now it’s a very solid edition, with a few hours’ worth of material that’s worth going through.
With the deleted material now included this new edition is a nice upgrade, though maybe not the one I would have hoped for. I’m sure it’s more a limitation of materials and how the film was shot, but the visual upgrade isn’t as substantial as I would have imagined. The Blu-ray does offer a cleaner, slightly more detailed, less noisier image, but the upgrades basically stop there, and the new DVD has a slightly better encode that would probably only be noticeable on a far bigger TV (and I would hope people with large televisions would actually have a Blu-ray player by now.) Still on its own, not comparing it to the previous DVD, it’s an excellent edition for the film and well worth picking up.