Beyond slavery (and Cvil Rights), the mistreatment of Native Americans and a woman’s right to vote, the Vietnam War might be the most ignominious stain on American history. Sure, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, same-sex equality and wealth disparity might make that list, too, in time, but Vietnam—a.k.a. the living-room war—fervently consumed the American conscience for over a decade. It was something new, too. The two Great Wars had us justly battling tyranny, championing the oppressed and righting wrongs on the road to freedom. Korea was something else, something more complex, something that appeared to be in the same arena of righteous and yet, it was really a Cold War bellwether delineating the fractious ideological divide between democracy and communism. Tough lessons were learned from that war, but Vietnam, in an era of burgeoning liberalism, free love and racial integration in the wake of Ozzie and Harriet idealism—and further inflamed by the mandatory enlistment for the draft—touched off a cascade of social unrest and activism that caused the United States to reconsider its foreign policy, something that has rippled forward to the wars that confront the U.S. currently.
That said, Rory Kennedy’s pointed documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, doesn’t deal with much of that political turmoil that steamrolled the country, or the notion of right and wrong or Red versus Red, White and Blue; instead, it chronicles a very narrow slice of the war—the time after the Paris Peace Accords when the U.S. had officially exited the war and the ensuing dilemma that faced U.S. forces remaining in Vietnam and the what to do about the allied South Vietnamese who faced certain peril at the hands of the oncoming North.
As Kennedy’s doc has it, Nixon’s inglorious departure from office was the catalyst for chaos in Vietnam. Those in the North were largely fearful of Nixon’s resolve, and with him gone and vague language in the Accords, a southward incursion was launched by the North as the U.S. withdrew. (The Accords were to get the U.S. out and stipulated for universal peace in Vietnam.) At first, Graham Martin, the U.S. Ambassador who had the authority to mandate an evacuation, did not believe the imminence or the potency of the threat, so many U.S. military officials began an illicit operation to covertly smuggle at-risk South Vietnamese out of the country—even onto U.S. naval ships. As the danger escalated, the North bombed the Tan Son Nhut Air Base to pieces—making it unfit for use—and when Martin finally called for an official evacuation, the desired mass means of boat and fix-winged evacuations were not possible and thus the famously televised, round-the-clock airlift by (slow, low capacity) helicopter was launched.
Much of the talking head testimony gets delivered by the heroic U.S. servicemen who were at the U.S. Embassy during those final hours as well as their South Vietnamese allies, some of whom made it out, and some of whom did not. Probably the most harrowing recount comes about the pilot who flew a giant Chinook into the middle of Saigon to evacuate his wife, children and others and then, flying blindly out at sea, looked to rendezvous with a ship while running out of fuel.
Piecing together the myriad and moving vignettes of perseverance and humanity, Kennedy, niece of the former U.S. president who kept us out of Vietnam, holds her focus and never succumbs to heavy-handed methods, allowing the participants and events to build the historical experience from the ground up. The one deft touch she applies is the sly transformation of Martin from a blind-eyed goat, to a last-boots-on-the-ground hero. President Ford, too, concerned about people and not political gain, goes to bat for the South Vietnamese. (America and Congress were war-weary and wanted nothing more to do with the South Pac peninsula.)
Kennedy, who you could argue is simply a privileged dilettante, has made just a handful of other films, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Ethel (2012), about her mother and the Kennedy dynasty. Here, the scope and task is bigger. There’s no hiding behind artifice or personal revelation, and honestly, her name distracts from what is a very compelling and complete document. What she has rendered is so subtly poignant it sneakily stays with you—the true test of an effective documentary. Her effort sheds new light and understanding on a dark chapter in American history. It also serves notice about a promising filmmaker whose name stems from American legacy itself.
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writer: Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester
Starring: Henry Kissinger, Stuart Harrington, Richard Armitage
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.