Director: Rory Kennedy
Release Date: September 12th, 2014
Last Days in Vietnam is a historical documentary that everyone interested in history needs to see.
As one of the feature’s subjects notes, ampoule when the United States started thinking about evacuating South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese army invaded unabashedly, “the burning question was who goes and who gets left behind.” That’s the question that’s reflected on again and again here.
The feature goes from showing the painful fall of Saigon– the capital of South Vietnam– to the Paris Peace Accords (signed two years earlier), which were signed by President Nixon as a way to officially and successfully bring an end to the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, as the documentary notes, the agreement was vague and began to fall apart only months after it was signed. As one historian notes, the leaders of North Vietnam thought that President Nixon was a madman— capable of anything— and as soon as he resigned, the dominoes began to fall quickly and the previously-chastened leaders of North Vietnam were all too willing to take advantage of Nixon’s resignation and the American public’s resistance to sending more troops and money to save South Vietnam.
As North Vietnam began to invade South Vietnam, the clock began ticking towards the day that the United States would need to evacuate. In this picture, Kennedy puts the focus on many of the officers who were in Saigon when the inevitable evacuation was approaching. Against their official orders, many of these officers– at risk to their own military careers– began planning out evacuation routes in advance (the US ambassador to South Vietnam there never listened to evacuation plans until it was too late).
With a powerful focus on detail, Kennedy takes what we know of the fall of Saigon— many of us simply know about it through the images we’ve seen of men and women struggling to fit into overwhelmed helicopters — and opens our eyes to a more fully-realized picture of that dreadful situation and the people involved. The ambassador, for instance, is– at first– superficially discussed as a man who stubbornly refused to listen to reason and plan for an evacuation. That’s true, of course, but the more in-depth story of him is that he was a father who lost his only son during the war and clung painfully to the idea that the peace accords could be maintained.
It’s easy to dislike a man whose actions are questionable and whose motivations are unclear. It’s much harder to dislike a man whose heartbreaking story of loss prevented him from seeing the situation as it really was.
When one of the main subjects describes the events in April 1975— the month that Saigon officially fell— as “promises made in good faith, promises broken,” he adds that the phrase could also describe the war as a whole. It’s hard to disagree to his analysis. Even through this heartbreaking picture, there are countless stories of American men and women who were willing to do anything they could to save South Vietnamese citizens, who had aligned with the American forces, from an awful fate. These are stories of heroism and idealism and love that show that throughout this dispiriting and painful period, the American spirit remained alive even in the bleakest of environments.
In Last Days of Vietnam, Rory Kennedy has done an outstanding job of showing what the soldiers went through during those dark days and how they tried to maintain their resolve in the face of an unspeakable situation.
Review by: John Hanlon