Fast Chat: Peter Davis of "Hearts and Minds"

When Peter Davis's account of the Vietnam era, "Hearts and Minds," won the Oscar for best documentary at the 1975 Academy Awards, coproducer Bert Schneider took the podium and read a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace Accords. Bob Hope, the host that evening, was so incensed that he sent Frank Sinatra onstage to apologize on the Academy's behalf. "Hearts and Minds," which has just been rereleased, is no less polarizing today. It intercuts images of U.S. soldiers razing villages and visiting Saigon whorehouses with scenes of vets being fit for prosthetics. Its title came from President Lyndon Johnson's claim that victory in Vietnam depended on winning the hearts and minds of its people—a phrase that has been invoked repeatedly regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NEWSWEEK's Jennie Yabroff spoke to Davis about his film's lasting relevance.

Why rerelease the film now?
Every president since Vietnam has been haunted by the ghost of that war, and every one stopped short of starting a war he couldn't complete. Ford in Cambodia. Carter in Iran. Reagan was chomping at the bit with Nicaragua. Clinton got his nose bloodied in Somalia. Vietnam stayed all of their hands. After 9/11, we forgot the lessons.

When you went to Vietnam in 1972, what were your goals?
I came up with three questions: why we went to Vietnam, what we did there and what the doing did to us. I wanted my film to address those questions in every sequence.

Many critics labeled the film antiwar propaganda for the way you juxtaposed unrelated scenes.
Let's take the most explosive cut in the film: the one where we go from General [William] Westmoreland saying, "The Oriental doesn't put the value on human life that we do in the West," to the little Vietnamese boy weeping at his father's burial. If you put Westmoreland next to a shot of American soldiers in Vietnam, it gives the impression that all of them believe what Westmoreland says, which isn't true. If you put it next to stock footage of the French in Indochina, you give the impression the whole thing has been a racist campaign, which also isn't entirely true. I thought Westmoreland's quote should be juxtaposed with a scene of what the wages of war actually are. It's always, first, about death when you go to war. And the people who did the most dying in Vietnam were the Vietnamese.