In the middle of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, there was an enormous tamarind tree growing out of a patch of grass in the parking lot. Graham Martin, the ambassador to South Vietnam in the mid-1970s, described the magnificent tree as being “as steadfast as the American commitment to Vietnam.”
In April of 1975, as the North Vietnamese army closed in on the struggling city from all sides, the Americans in Saigon cut the tree down.
“Last Days in Vietnam,” a documentary by Rory Kennedy (whose documentary “Ethel” premiered at Sundance in 2012) chronicles events from the end of April 1975, two years after the Paris Peace Accords. In that agreement, which supposedly ended the Vietnam War, the United States promised to provide assistance to the South Vietnamese (in the form of both supplies and military aid) should the North Vietnamese resume their offensive. When that finally did happen in 1975, Congress refused to deliver on promises made by a disgraced former president, and ordered the American diplomats and military personnel in Saigon to evacuate only U.S. citizens from the city before the threat of the North Vietnamese inevitably became a reality. “Last Days in Vietnam” is about the few Americans remaining in Saigon who were forced to make a choice between what they were ordered to do and what they knew was right.
While the documentary hardly breaks any new creative ground, its powerful content speaks for itself by revealing a harrowing episode of the Vietnam War — already a troubling chapter of American history. In interviews with subjects ranging from Henry Kissinger to a Vietnamese student who survived the ordeal, “Last Days in Vietnam” is deeply compelling in its episodes, if a bit dry in its moments of straight historical narrative. That said, it doesn’t come off as a quickly rattled-off list of heartbreaking vignettes; they are gracefully weaved together into a greater story of individuals succeeding where institutions failed.
Chief among those individuals is Ambassador Martin, who had lost his son in Vietnam and become deeply invested in the country’s future. When the U.S. government sent a helicopter to lift him off the roof of the embassy, he insisted that he would not leave the country until as many South Vietnamese as possible were evacuated, setting off a chain of selfless acts of bravery that are guaranteed to make many viewers bawl.
It’s worth noting that, though the documentary highlights the heroism of many Americans stationed in Saigon, it’s not exactly patriotic. The entire moral quandary — of whether to follow orders or follow one’s conscience — exists because of an American failure to do the right thing. “Last Days in Vietnam” isn’t about the goodness of the American spirit, but rather the greatness of humanity itself.
Elegantly summing up the significance of this short period, U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington says near the end of the film that the April 1975 events represent “the whole Vietnam involvement in microcosm: promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together” — in short, one blunder after another, each one resulting in more lost lives. The most heartbreaking testimony comes from some of the Vietnamese men who survived. “I thought of my friends who had died in action and I thought, is this what we fought for?” one of them asks. “Is this what the Americans came for?”
The Americans in Vietnam had to cut down the tamarind tree on the embassy campus in order to create a flat landing area, to enable the evacuation of the South Vietnamese via aircraft. While they removed the plant in a final effort to do right by Vietnam — against presidential orders — its symbolism remains: had the U.S. government not utterly failed South Vietnam, the tree might still be standing today.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Last Days in Vietnam” will surely find a welcome home on television, like many of Kennedy’s earlier documentaries. However, its subject matter and routine execution severely limit its theatrical potential.