The war in Vietnam was a complete mess. Variations of that idea have become so widespread that it’s almost an American proverb. It is undoubtedly the most common notion that goes through people’s minds when they think about the Vietnam War. Nowadays, ardent adversaries to U.S. interventions in the Middle East often use it as a coup de main to prove how getting involved in other people’s territories and countries often leads to uncontrollable disaster and a hauntingly large civilian body count. It’s been depicted on film and in documentaries throughout the past 40 years, and more often than not the messages in these pictures serve to hammer the same nail on the head. Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary “Last Days in Vietnam” shows a different side to this most unpopular war while making no apologies or justifications. It’s a searing series of accounts from dignified patriots, weary politicians, and desperate civilians stuck in a frantic situation, and a remarkable piece of work that should be seen by everyone who thinks they know everything about the Vietnam War.
The Paris Peace Accords, a pact intended to bring peace to a ravaged region and remove US military troops, was signed in 1973. It was intended to end a catastrophic war, handled by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. One of the provisos stated that the North Vietnamese must not break the peace; otherwise, the U.S. would have to intervene in “full force.” But when the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, everything changed. The Paris Peace pact, which CIA analyst Frank Snepp calls “a masterpiece of ambiguity,” began to be severely tested by the North Vietnamese, and an invasion was launched on Saigon on March 19th, 1975. Gerald Ford took over presidential duties in Washington DC with two major priorities in mind: 1.) ensure the safety and protection of American nationals (many of whom stayed on after 1973 because they started families) and the local Vietnamese left in South Vietnam and 2.) restore American honor. “Last Days in Vietnam” details how moral culpability clashed with fear under an all-encompassing atmosphere of misunderstanding, specifically surrounding the events of April 29th 1975, the day of the American evacuation operation.
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“When you know something is right, you must ignore the rules and follow your heart” says a teary-eyed Kiem Do, a South Vietnamese Naval captain at the time who kept receiving mixed messages from his own government: one day he was told to hold ground, the next he was told to abandon his post. Kennedy’s matter-of-fact approach invites a wide range of participants, from the archives of the past to present day interviews, who together paint a complete portrait of a political and moral dilemma. These include U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, President Ford, Kissinger, Snepp, a Vietnamese college student, a Marine coast guard, Army captain Stuart Herrington, a Republican senator, among others. They were all in direct or indirect ways confronted with mixed messages like Kiem Do and put to the test in deciding whether to follow a legal path that is humanely wrong or an illegal path which their heart of hearts tells them is right. It’s a fascinating depiction of a barely covered aspect of the Vietnam War, told in the unvarnished way we’ve come to expect from Kennedy, her previous docs “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” and “Ethel” standing as chief precedents. She doesn’t dabble in showy cinematics or narrative twists and thus her subjects are never in danger of being overshadowed by style. Such is her approach with “Last Days in Vietnam.” It could be perceived as pedantic to some, but to this writer it’s a sign of confidence in subject.
To interviewees recounting these events, the documented footage including queues of people waiting to climb on board a helicopter, and the multitudes of South Vietnamese civilians populating the USS Kirk, looking like “something out of Exodus,” as one captain puts it —these images and accounts hold enough of a deep interest. They are left to flow in traditional, simple documentary fashion. Gary Lionelli’s score can be singled out as the only embellishment this documentary has, but otherwise it’s all straightforward direction. The stories surrounding Ford’s improbable position as the man left in charge of the clean-up after Nixon, Martin’s personal connections to the Vietnam War and how far they went in dictating his refusal to believe in North Vietnamese danger, and similar stories of betrayal, delusion, and impossible predicaments are the ultimate reasons behind the gut-wrenching feeling of remorse you’re left with after “Last Days in Vietnam.”
In a contemptuous world, where people are frighteningly quick to label, blame, and ignore, a documentary like Kennedy’s “Last Days of Vietnam” comes along to remind us that it’s never simple, and that pointing the finger becomes a futile exercise that can only accomplish paralysis. Even in a war as unpopular and damaging as the Vietnam War, there comes a point where you have to stop running back the clock, and acknowledge the bravery and honor of certain participants, American and Vietnamese alike, who did the best they could in an impossible situation. For these reasons, Kennedy and her subjects should be saluted, and “Last Days in Vietnam” should enter the same pantheons where 1974’s “Hearts and Minds” and 1987’s “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” reside. It’s a documentary you need to get out and see at all costs. [A]