Last Days in Vietnam Dir. Rory Kennedy

[American Experience Films; 2014]

Styles: war, documentary
Others: In the Year of the Pig, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War came to an end when North Vietnamese tanks and troops rolled into the capital after a one month march that had swiftly conquered every region of the country except Saigon. Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the disastrous exit strategy by the United States during the final days of the war. The film begins with a brief historical incursion where the viewer is situated on the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which established a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam/USA. In August 1974, Nixon resigns after the Watergate Scandal and by March 1975, North Vietnam violates the peace agreement and begins a swift southward military incursion. After this very brief historical context, most of the film’s running time is dedicated to the final month before the Fall of Saigon and, more especially, on the very last day of U.S. military presence on Vietnam soil: April 29, 1975. Rory Kennedy makes good use of this pinpointed historical slice and within this thematic choice lies the film’s strongest points — as well as its Achilles heel.

Let’s start with the good. Formally speaking, Last Days in Vietnam is straightforward: archival footage and photographs intertwined with interviews and testimonials from those who were there that day. Director Rory Kennedy and editor Don Kleszy work wonders with this format, however, showing that simple can be extremely effective in a fast-paced film that moves in a week-by-week account of the events, eventually decreasing into an hourly rundown of an unimaginable and chaotic situation: U.S. officials trying to evacuate as many people as possible from Saigon while Vietcong tanks could roll in at any moment. The film never focuses too much on the speakers, and instead we mostly listen to their voices over the stock footage. But if this helps to create dramatic tension and rhythm it also undermines separable points of views: in the end, it doesn’t matter who is speaking, they all become voiceovers for a voice-of-God narration.

There are graver issues, however. Save for a few located historical landmarks, there is no attempt by the filmmaker to encapsulate the events of April 29th, 1975 into a wider historical and political structure. This would not be a problem per se if such omission was justified due to mere lack of time to deal with all the facets of such a complex war. Instead of simply ignoring conjectural and structural political explanations however, Kennedy personalizes the motions of cause and effect by dichotomizing heroes and villains. At first, one of the main villains is Ambassador Graham Martin, who for some badly explained reason stubbornly refuses to establish an exit evacuation strategy as soon as Vietcong forces begin to advance. Later on in the film, Martin becomes a hero when he refuses to leave the Embassy until all efforts are made to save as many people as possible. The marines are also unanimously treated as heroes alongside some CIA agents who organize a black OP to move civilians out of the country when Ambassador Martin was still reluctant. Another villain is the entire North Vietnamese army, whose “brutality” is supported by a single sentence alongside some pictures of dead children. This was a brutal, ignorant, unnecessary, and bloodthirsty war where atrocities took place from all sides of the conflict. Don’t begin a new subject or bring up such an intricate issue unless you’re ready to effectively incorporate it into your argument. A war documentary should know better than to personify the entire enemy as a pure embodiment of evil.

In spite of these shortcomings Last Days in Vietnam is truly exceptional when it concentrates all efforts on the chaotic milieu surrounding the disastrous last-minute evacuation from Saigon: U.S. officials with less than 24 hours to decide who should be saved and who should be left behind; how to evacuate tens of thousands of people (both American and Vietnamese who were working with the American government); the urgent necessity to shred thousands of classified documents and dispose of money and weaponry so the North Vietnamese army would not get ahold of them. At one point the logistics of the whole ordeal seem so comically disastrous that a tree inside the U.S. embassy has to be urgently cut down just so a chopper is able to land. It’s frightening to see how much of turning points in history can be no more than sheer make it up as you go along.

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