The Things We Carry

Peter Davis’ 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds is
filled with appalling scenes. U.S. troops nonchalantly set villages
on fire, torture Vietnamese prisoners, and rifle through the
clothing on dead bodies. A colonel gleefully describes his men as
‘a bloody good bunch of killers.’ And three soldiers with kill
spray-painted on their uniforms head out on patrol.

When it first reached theaters, the film served as shock
treatment for Americans — a challenge to anyone who saw Vietnam as
an exercise in virtue or self-defense. The film was threatened with
legal action, and at one screening, protesters tore the seats out
of the theaters.

More than 30 years later, the debate about Vietnam is virtually
over, and Americans aren’t quite so easily shocked. But that
doesn’t mean Hearts and Minds has lost its power. Instead,
the film has grown deeper and more poignant. Today, it’s a modern
tragedy and one of several recently re-released political films
from the 1960s and 1970s that feel as urgent and relevant as ever.
Hearts and Minds, along with Winter Soldier and
Harlan County USA, suggests that injustice and abuses of
power are woven into the American fabric.

In Hearts and Minds, Davis uses an assemblage of
interviews, war footage, and archival clips to show us Vietnam from
an array of perspectives. Through Davis’ lens, we see a war built
on murky rationales whose outcome was profoundly uncertain. The
damage done to our own young men was incalculable; the suffering we
wrought ‘over there’ was even greater. To watch Hearts and
Minds
is to read Vietnam as a how-not-to manual on conducting
a war. As the occupation of Iraq grows more deadly by the day,
Davis’ scenario feels all too familiar.

Another Vietnam doc, Winter Soldier, directed by the
Winterfilm Collective, was filmed in 1971 at a conference of newly
returned vets. Broadcasters and theater chains considered it too
incendiary to show to audiences, but Winter Soldier is
resolutely simple in style: The footage consists almost entirely of
soldiers describing atrocities they witnessed and committed.

The most chilling scenes — really, some of the most chilling
footage ever put on film — feature the decorated Marine Scott
Camil as he vividly describes the brutality of his training, the
dehumanizing racism toward the Vietnamese, and the way that killing
became a game. His comrades bought beers, he said, for the Marine
who collected the most ears from dead Vietnamese. And if Camil had
to kill 150 civilians to make sure none of them could harm him,
he’d do it, without a second thought. By the end of Camil’s
testimony, we are left with the unsettling and unshakable idea that
our military can turn American kids into monsters — the same
feeling we got when we saw the photos from Abu Ghraib.

By connecting the past and the present, vintage political films
like Hearts and Minds and Winter Soldier do more
than serve up history; they reveal how certain kinds of injustice
never go out of style. Barbara Kopple’s gripping, restless
documentary Harlan County USA follows a 13-month strike by
Kentucky coal miners. These men work 80-hour shifts, live in shacks
without water, and are unable to feed their families. Uninsured,
they die young of black lung. And, after decades of suffering,
they’ve finally organized themselves to make some modest demands,
only to find themselves treated like the enemy by the
profit-obsessed energy corporation (‘We have plans to upgrade them
to trailers,’ one representative says).

Harlan County‘s themes of corporate malfeasance,
dangerous workplaces, and the invisibility of labor still echo
through today’s workplaces. Thirty years later, we have the 2002
defunding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the
workers broken by Enron’s collapse, the 5,700 on-the-job fatalities
in 2004 (a number that has been rising in recent years), and tens
of millions of American workers who have no health insurance. And,
of course, the deadly disaster at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in
January.

Less accomplished political films often read like manifestos,
but the best ones offer layers of complexity and meaning. They are
subject to reinterpretation, and that’s why they travel well
through time. The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers,
re-released in 2004 on DVD, shows the French colonial forces
crushing a popular uprising in the mid-1950s, only to be defeated
by an explosive insurgency a few years later. In the late 1960s the
Black Panthers used the film as a recruitment tool; in 2003 the
Pentagon screened it for military planners preparing for Iraq.

Winter Soldier, Hearts and Minds, and
Harlan County have particular resonance for Americans:
They require us to do some soul-searching about our homeland.
Unlike, say, Fahrenheit 9/11, which might leave us
incensed at a particular group of politicians, these three films
reveal deeply ingrained inequities in our culture that have
persisted over time.

While we were taught to believe that America is an ethical
country, riding a moral growth curve, these movies suggest a
different model: America as repeat offender.

Hearts and Minds and The Battle of Algiers are
available on DVD through The Criterion Collection
(www.criterionco.com) and
will have a limited theatrical release through Rialto Pictures
(www.rialtopictures.com).
Winter Soldier is scheduled for DVD release this March
through Milliarium Zero
(www.wintersoldierfilm.com)
Harlan County USA will be released early this summer by
The Criterion Collection.

UTNE
UTNE
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