Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Last Days in Vietnam Movie Review

Though it’s not the most exciting or ground-breaking documentary you’ll see, Rory Kennedy has made one of the more solid, interesting, and important entries in the 2014 crop of award-winning documentaries. Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the final days of the war between North and South Vietnam, long after the U.S. had pulled all troops off the ground and the Paris Peace Accords had been signed. After President Nixon resigned, the North Vietnamese army began advancing in violation of the agreement. This documentary is about the effort to evacuate the American Embassy in Saigon including all Americans on the ground. A lot of Americans also had Vietnamese wives and children to evacuate. Then a simple evacuation turned into a massive humanitarian effort to extract tens of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who might end up imprisoned or executed if left behind.

Last Days in Vietnam reveals an aspect of American history that has largely been overlooked or forgotten. Its having occurred two years after our military departure made it a footnote, something that people didn’t feel a great need to pay attention to. The film serves to highlight a little beacon of positivity and hope that occurred amid a controversial and unfortunate era of American history.

Kennedy gets testimonials from several eye-witnesses who were on the ground in Saigon during the evacuation. We hear from both American and South Vietnamese military leaders, American embassy personnel, Vietnamese civilians, and even Henry Kissinger, whose perspective was thousands of miles away in Washington’s State Department. What they all describe is a high-stress and hectic time during a great humanitarian crisis. The embassy let hundreds of people onto their grounds in the hopes of getting them out. The only means they had was to transport them by helicopter out to American naval ships in the South China Sea. The helicopters couldn’t carry many at any one time. This section of the story sounds like it’s headed for a Hollywood ending with everyone making it out safely, but after the American ambassador was extracted, President Ford ordered the immediate evacuation of remaining American personnel and the end to removal of refugees. The American guards on the ground heartbreakingly relate how they had to abandon more than 400 civilians to an unknown fate.

The airlift from the embassy was one of many means of South Vietnamese getting out of Saigon. They also piled into their own military helicopters and flew out hoping to rendezvous with a ship. An American naval ship allowed them to land. This is where those famous images of Americans pushing helicopters off the side of the ship come from. The landing pad was only big enough for one craft. They needed to make room for the rest that were hovering around.

As historical document, Last Days in Vietnam is top notch. It’s not overly effusive, it doesn’t try to cover too much, and it doesn’t overreach for emotional impact. It’s moving, but not devastating. It’s also worth considering the timing of the telling of this particular story now. Why did it take forty years for this? The answer may lie in America’s foray into Iraq, which was compared from the planning stages as potentially another Vietnam. When the Americans being interviewed in Last Days in Vietnam talk about promises made to a nation and a people and a complete failure to follow through, it’s hard not to think about the promise of the Iraq invasion to bring peace, stability, and democracy to that country. Again, we failed in what we set out to accomplish and it’s the local population that has paid the biggest price, as they did in Saigon four decades ago.

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