Great news. Two of the outstanding documentaries of the Vietnam War era are now available, one in the theaters and the other on DVD. “Hearts and Minds” opens at the Cinema Village today and is not only the finest documentary of the period, but arguably the finest political documentary ever made. You can also order “FTA” from Netflix, a movie that both documents Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s legendary challenge to Bob Hope’s UFO shows and the amazing response of active-duty GI’s who by 1971 were sick and tired of Hope’s cheesy, warmongering “entertainment”, and more importantly the war it cheered on.
Michael Moore goes even further than me. He calls Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” the best movie ever and adds that it was the movie that inspired him to pick up a camera. Indeed, you see what an influence it was on Moore and indirectly on so many other documentary film-makers who when they were imitating Moore were truly imitating Peter Davis. One of the brilliant insights of “Hearts and Minds” is to use footage of old newsreels and movies that reflected the Red Scare mentality that made the Vietnam War possible, a device used by Moore and so many other directors. There is nothing like a brief scene from a McCarthyite warhorse like “My Son John” to remind you how deep the paranoia ran in the 1950s and remained enough of a force to allow people like LBJ to sell the war to the American people.
The title “Hearts and Minds” is an ironic commentary on LBJ’s assurances that “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live there.”
Using interviews with people on both sides of the debate, Davis reminds us of how deep the divide over Vietnam was. The pro-war personalities were both frightening and pathetic, including the mother and father of a Harvard graduate who died in Vietnam. While the father says that his son’s sacrifice was necessary to uphold American stature overseas, the mother idly plays with a model jet fighter.
It was the pilot of such a fighter who looms largest in Davis’s movie as a symbol of the madness of war. We see a welcome home parade in Linden, New Jersey for George Coker, a bomber pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and spent over 6 years in a prison camp. Once he returns, he makes the lecture circuit telling schoolchildren and their mothers how important it is to defeat Communism. When a student asks what Vietnam was like, he answers that except for the people, it was very pretty. He thanks the mothers for their harsh discipline at home which helped him become a warrior. They were scarier to him than the “gooks” who imprisoned him.
Davis also allows prominent government officials to explain why they supported the war, including Walt Rostow who was the Paul Wolfowitz of his day. Rostow can barely conceal the contempt for the interviewers who have the nerve to ask him whether the war was defendable. By 1974, when the movie was made, the war was obviously going bad for the USA, thus making Rostow all the more compellingly peevish.
On the antiwar side, Daniel Ellsberg is powerful and lucid as might be expected. Coming from a background similar to Coker’s, Ellsberg is just one among thousands of establishment figures who grew to oppose the war, even at the risk of prison.
But the most moving parts of the movie are the interviews with the Vietnamese who share their losses of either property or loved ones with the interviewers. For those who are too young to remember Vietnam or who want to be reminded of how courageous its people were in the face of overwhelming military superiority, “Hearts and Minds” is a must.
Screening information is at the Cinema Village website.
The letters “FTA” stand for “Fuck the Army” and were also used by the antiwar movement to mean “Free the Army”. Both usages are found liberally in this 1972 movie that tracks Jane Fonda and company across the Pacific Rim as they perform for adoring GI and local audiences.
In an 20 minute extra on the DVD, we learn that the revue came out of a suggestion made by antiwar medic Howard Levy who believed that a corrective to Bob Hope’s gung-ho shows was needed.
The skits can be described as a mixture of old-time vaudeville and agit-prop that sends up the military after the fashion of “MASH”. Since Donald Sutherland had starred in the 1970 movie, he was a natural for the FTA revue. Jane Fonda had already become one of the most prominent antiwar figures in the U.S., along with Mohammed Ali and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Both are fascinating to watch as they wring laughter and applause from the enlisted men.
But the most amazing part of the movie is the interviews with the soldiers themselves who have reached the point of open rebellion, even to the point of wearing their hair long and growing beards. It was obvious that several years of massive demonstrations in the U.S. had emboldened soldiers to challenge their superiors in one way or another. When they are in Japan, the performers hook up with the sailors on the aircraft carrier Constellation who had circulated a petition demanding that it withdraw from the war. It was signed by nearly 1500 crewmen!
FTA was released in July 1972 and shown at selected theaters around the country, but in less than a week it was pulled from distribution. That same month Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. The movie is now being shown for the first time since 1972 largely as a result of the efforts of David Ziegler, the director of the very find “Sir, No Sir“.
“FTA” is not to be missed.