It has been almost 40 years since Saigon fell to the overwhelming forces of the North Vietnamese Army. We are all familiar with the images of the final days but there is much more to those “Last Days in Vietnam.”
I thought I knew a lot about the fateful days of April 1975 that ended the Vietnam War. The images of Americans and South Vietnamese climbing the stairs to the last chopper leaving the American embassy, Huey helicopters being dump over the side of an aircraft carrier and tens of thousands of civilians crowding to get into the US embassy to possible freedom are all pictures that remain in our minds. Documaker Kennedy turns those images on their respective ears in her finely crafted, informative and thought-provoking work that is deeply moving and, often, heartbreaking.
The reality of what actually happened during the last tragic days of free Saigon is both unnerving and fascinating. The question facing then US Ambassador Graham Martin was: Who do we take and who do we leave? It depends on which version to believe – the official one proffered by Martin and the American State Department or the unofficial one where American military personnel defy the official stance and do all they can to get as many South Vietnamese out of Saigon before the fall. The heroism of these brave men to save lives is, finally, truly heralded.
The archival footage that Kennedy and company acquired – and there is a lot - is a wealth of new, to me, information about the end of the Vietnam War. She also has eyewitness interviews with those on the ground back then who risk their lives during the evacuation and various “official” spokespeople, including then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The images from the archives are expertly paired with those who were there with the narrative punctuating the pictures.
“Last Days in Vietnam” should be seen by many but probably will be seen by the few. It is one of the best, if not the best, documentaries this year and deserves a big viewership. Saying it is great is almost an understatement. I give it an A.
After Richard Nixon's resignation, the emboldened North Vietnamese began flouting the Paris Peace Accords, steamrolling south until the fall of Saigon became inevitable. U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, refusing to accept defeat and not wishing to panic South Vietnamese, stalled evacuation plans for the remaining American forces, diplomatic corps and civilians and Congress rejected President Ford's aid plan for the South Vietnamese, many of whom would be facing certain death. U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington tells us it was a terrible moral dilemma for everyone and he and several colleagues began their own underground evacuation of a desperate people, but ultimately the United States left most behind during the "Last Days of Vietnam."
Writer/director Rory Kennedy (HBO's 'Ethel') delves into a very specific historical footnote of the Vietnam War, balancing a big picture recounting with shadings of personal human drama that flesh out the myriad complexities, moments of heroism and shame, in an untenable situation. Although Kennedy follows the standard documentary format of archival footage and stills edited with current day interviews, she has constructed her telling of the story so expertly that her work is both moving and riveting.
Ambassador Martin, whose loss of his only son in combat gave him additional emotional ties to the country where he served, comes across as a man of nobility and morality who nonetheless frustrates with his hesitance to act. This one man is deserving of his own documentary. But there are so many other stories to be told here. Martin was given four evacuation plans, but the surprise attack on the Saigon airport winnowed them down to the least promising - evacuation by helicopter for those within the U.S. Embassy, which, already housing thousands of South Vietnamese, was being overrun by thousands more. With 24 hours to accomplish the job, one Marine pilot flew for over 18 hours straight.
Out in the oceans, the men of the U.S.S. Kirk, outfitted with one helipad, was astonished by the approach of helicopters loaded with refugees. As each landed, it had to be pushed over the edge of the ship and into the sea in order to enable the next to land. Miki Nguyen tells us how his mother dropped her baby out of a helicopter into the waiting arms of the men on deck before jumping herself. They had flown out in a Chinook, much too large to land, and after his human cargo had all gotten to safety, the pilot miraculously managed to hover for 10 minutes while he struggled out of his flight suit, ditching his bird to one side as he escaped from the other.
Department of Defense official and former Navy Officer Richard Armitage flew into the country to ensure American provided South Vietnamese war ships would not fall into the North's hands while surreptitiously loading them with 30,000 refugees who arrived in the Philippines without immigration papers or passports.
It' most ironic to watch Henry Kissinger relate President Ford's anger when his humanitarian efforts were denied by Congress. Due to a communications mix up, the Ambassador was ordered to leave while almost 500 remained, assured help would still arrive. It never did. After seeing this film, one may never hear Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' in quite the same way ever again. "Last Days in Vietnam" is yet one more reminder of the devastation often left behind in the wake of American intervention. It is sobering, yet also a celebration of the individual willing to put himself on the line for what is right. Kennedy's documentary is one of the best of the year.
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