Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

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Working through the list of Oscar nominees for last year, we come to this modest documentary about the final days of the Vietnam War. Specifically, it focuses on the evacuation of Americans and the Vietnamese who aided the Americans and feared reprisals from the Communists just prior to the Fall of Saigon in 1975. To be fair, this is of course the Western name for that day and Vietnam as it exists today understandably prefers to call it Reunification Day.

It does spend some time establishing the context, explaining how the resignation of Richard Nixon due to the Watergate scandal in 1974 emboldened the North Vietnamese. Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford was unable to persuade the U.S. Congress to increase aid to South Vietnam and subsequently the North were able to steamroll through the South with contemptuous ease. But most of its time is spent showing how most Americans in Vietnam were well aware that the South was lost even in early 1975 and were frustrated by the refusal of the U.S. embassy in Saigon to plan for an orderly evacuation.

A surprising amount of vitriol is directed against ambassador Graham Martin. The documentary makes the case that having lost a son in combat, Martin was absolutely committed to the cause of the South Vietnamese state and refused to consider any scenario that involved the Americans abandoning Vietnam. As such he viewed any attempt to even draw up an evacuation plan, much less carry one out, to be treason since it would harm morale. This explains why the evacuation, when it finally became inevitable, was so chaotic and unbecoming of the well-oiled American military machine.

All this was before my time of course, but I’m still old enough to have grown up knowing how this rushed and disorderly exit from Vietnam was a humiliation for the U.S and a symbol of how pointless and futile the whole war was. Watching this, I learned that it was even crazier and more desperate than I’d ever imagined. An eye-opening example of this is the story of how South Vietnamese helicopter pilots would land on the decks of U.S. ships waiting off the coast and then the crew would physically push the chopper off the deck and into the sea in order to make room for the next helicopter.

After being bitten by Blackfish, both my wife and myself are pretty sensitive about documentaries making misleading statements so I took extra care to read up on the events after watching this film. As far as I can tell, the depiction here seems to be honest. The only misgivings I have is that, in the grand scheme of things, the evacuation from the U.S. embassy feels so inconsequential. It’s an incredible story and a dramatic one, so I don’t fault the filmmakers for spending so much time on it. But in terms of actual numbers, the helicopter lifts from the embassy only took a few thousand people while the entire evacuation effort moved nearly 140,000 people.

Finally, I can’t shake the feeling that in the end it turned out to not be so necessary after all. As far as I know, the much feared blood bath following the Fall of Saigon never came and indeed from my reading, it seems as if the North Vietnamese deliberately paused their advance on the outskirts of Saigon to give the Americans ample time to evacuate and thereby avoid a direct confrontation.

At the same time, I don’t doubt that on an individual level this was an incredibly trying time for everyone and being able to get out of Vietnam was a singularly life-changing event for those involved. You need only listen to the American accents of the Vietnamese interviewed in this documentary who were mere children at that time to understand this. Having lived through a similar, though much less dangerous, experience twice in the Solomon Islands during the ethnic violence of 2001 and 2006, I can attest that this documentary aptly captures the growing feeling of panic in the air as everyone waits for something terrible to happen.

Overall, this is a solid documentary that is written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy. It’s American-centric of course, so it laments how the South Vietnamese have lost everything, even their country, but makes no mention of the sense of pride and joy of the North Vietnamese at having successfully unified their country. So with the caveat that it only covers one tiny part of a much larger story, I’d say that it’s a fascinating documentary for anyone who has any interest in the Vietnam War.

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