Many times during his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson said that ultimate victory in the Vietnam War depended upon the U.S. military winning the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Filmmaker Peter Davis uses Johnson's phrase in an ironic context in this anti-war documentary, filmed and released while the Vietnam War was still under way, juxtaposing interviews with military figures like U.S. Army Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland with shocking scenes of violence and brutality.
What the [Vietnam] war meant changes with your perspective. Was the war a crime (radicals), a mistake (liberals), a mistake not to win (conservatives), a crime not to win (hard right)?
— Peter Davis (Criterion)
Hearts and Minds is an essay told in a voice of thinly controlled moral outrage, which sometimes dribbles over into seething hate; a montage of footage of an American football game, with robotic cheerleaders, feels like slippage into an argument that has lost all control, and feels like a tantrum-style rant for its own sake. When Davis, halfway through the movie, returns to veterans as interview subjects and tilts his camera down to reveal that they are paralyzed from the waist down or missing a limb, it’s hard to determine whether it’s exploitative or revelatory […].
— Jeremiah Kipp (Slant Magazine)
The use of film clips, including more than a few from Hollywood productions, implicates filmmaking as perhaps the most powerful and successful tool of placation that the U.S. depended on to keep the public’s distance from the war’s dubiously moral origins. [The] director essentially not only homes in on Hollywood’s long-running insistence on the uncomplicated other, but alludes to how this practice helps develop an ignorant national mindset of us vs. them. […] And yet, Davis gives more time to a true believer: George Coker, a prisoner of war who, upon his release, toured around to talk about his experiences and support the war effort. […] It’s to Davis and his crew’s credit that Coker comes off as an entirely empathetic figure, as well as a moving symbol of an America unable to resolve its heroic past with its new reputation as the defiantly proud nation trying desperately to wash the blood off its hands.
— Chris Cabin (Slant Magazine)