Playback: Peter Davis' 'Hearts and Minds'
In the fall of 1971, my friends and I gathered in our college dorm to listen to the radio as our draft lottery numbers were drawn. Since the Vietnam War was still raging and student deferments had been eliminated, these random numbers would determine who would be drafted, who would become a conscientious objector and who would emigrate to Canada. We all knew we were against the war in Vietnam, but in retrospect, we couldn't easily separate our moral convictions from our own selfish reasons for opposing the war.
A few years after I drew a safe lottery number, I saw Hearts and Minds by Peter Davis, a documentary that made me appreciate in a deeply visceral way why I opposed the war and why our anti-war protests were justified. For me, this powerful film captured the injustice of the war in Vietnam in a way that no other article, book, film or television program had ever done. The film's title was inspired by President Johnson's statement that victory "will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there." But it was Peter Davis' film that ultimately won the hearts and minds of my generation.
Who could forget the images of a Vietnamese mother being restrained from climbing into the grave of her dead child, juxtaposed with General Westmorland's comment that "Life is cheap in the Orient." Two other indelible images from the film still come to mind 37 years later. One is the now-iconic shot of a naked Vietnamese girl with burns all over her body running away from a napalm attack. The other is the casual point-blank execution of a Vietcong prisoner who bleeds to death on the road. When Davis skillfully interweaves this news footage with interviews with soldiers, generals and politicians, the result is an unforgettable and devastating portrait of a disastrous and unjust war.
After watching Hearts and Minds, I came to fully grasp what a powerful weapon Peter Davis was wielding. I had no idea that one day I would become a filmmaker and be able to use the same weapon in my own battles to promote social justice through film. Although I was knocked out by the impact of Davis' film, in 1975 I couldn't imagine how anyone could make a living in this field. (There are still plenty of days when I harbor similar doubts.)
Instead of trying to break into film, I launched my career as a consumer advocate and soon had an opportunity to collaborate with some producers at WNET who wanted to use stories about our cases for a public affairs series. I quickly realized that these productions could reach a far broader audience than I could reach one client at a time. Fortunately, WNET hired me and, within a year, I was making my own social issue documentaries. Thirty films later, I still dream of having the kind of reach and impact that Peter Davis had with Hearts and Minds. Although he set a high bar, I continue to aspire to inspire audiences in the same way that Davis inspired me.
Hearts and Minds is available through The Criterion Collection.
Roger Weisberg is a writer, producer and director whose 30 previous documentaries have won over a hundred awards, including Emmy, duPont and Peabody awards as well as two Academy Award nominations. His current documentary, Money and Medicine, examines the health care cost crisis that threatens to bankrupt the country.