American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
My problem in writing about "Hearts and Minds" is how to go about separating the film's images -- which are sometimes heartbreakingly tragic, sometimes cruelly revealing -- from the craft of the film itself.
Here is a documentary about Vietnam that doesn't really level with us on a simple technical level. If we know something about how footage is obtained and how editing can make points, it sometimes looks like propaganda, using such standard tricks as the juxtaposition of carefully selected but unrelated material to create a desired effect. And yet, in scene after scene, the raw material itself is so devastating that it brushes the tricks aside.
"Hearts and Minds" was filmed over a period of a year at a cost of about $1 million, making it at the time the most ambitious American documentary since "Woodstock." And then it was shelved for a year because its original distributor, Columbia, feared legal problems. The ironic result is that it went into wide release in 1974, just at the moment when the whole Vietnam experiment seemed to be collapsing. By then, the hard-hat parades, the returning heroes lecturing school-children, the television promises of Johnson and Nixon, the hawkish line of Walt Rostow and the surprisingly racist banalities of Gen. William Westmoreland all seemed not only tragic but pathetic.
The problem is that the film is at such pains to make its points that it doesn't trust us to find our own connections. We see a tearful graveside scene in North Vietnam, for example, with a widow trying to throw herself onto her husband's coffin, and then we get Westmoreland soberly explaining that Orientals don't place a high value on life. In this and his other comments about what he calls "the Oriental philosophy," Westmoreland comes over as not only racist and stupid, but incredibly lacking in awareness of how his remarks will sound. This man ran a war for years in a country he didn't begin to understand.