Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can’t wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I’ll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number six on my list is Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam.
“The burning question was, who goes and who gets left behind,” explains Stuart Herrington, one of the U.S. diplomatic and military veterans remembering the fall of Saigon in Rory Kennedy’s engrossing documentary Last Days in Vietnam. As Herrington points out, the endgame of America’s involvement in Vietnam serves as a microcosm for the whole agonizing history of the war, a conflict that couldn’t be won and an international commitment that couldn’t be abandoned. Kennedy begins with the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which allowed President Nixon to start pulling out American troops but couldn’t prevent the North Vietnamese from continuing to prosecute the war, then flashes forward to April 1975, when the Vietcong began their final assault on South Vietnam. From that point onward the movie becomes a countdown of days, hours, and finally minutes as U.S. personnel are ordered to evacuate and Vietnamese loyalists—facing brainwashing, torture, and death at the hands of the enemy—scramble to flee the country.
Last Days in Vietnam isn’t going to win any prizes for stylistic innovation; produced for the PBS series American Experience, it’s a standard collection of talking heads and archival footage. Yet the story is so filled with personal drama that it overcomes the pedestrian filmmaking. As the Vietcong closed in, President Ford implored Congress to pass a $722 million relief bill to aid Vietnamese refugees, but by that time most American forces had returned home from Vietnam and the legislature wouldn’t cough up another dime for the South Vietnamese. “Those sons of bitches,” Ford exclaimed to his press secretary, Ron Nessen, who had never heard his boss curse anyone before. Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador, had lost his only son in the war and refused to acknowledge what became increasingly obvious: that the Americans would have to cut their losses and leave the South Vietnamese to their own devices. At first Martin comes off as proud, stubborn, and badly divorced from reality, but by the end of the movie, as he allows himself to be herded into one of the last helicopters, he seems more like a man unwilling to betray the South Vietnamese.
Liberal historians may fault a documentary that focuses on the remorse of U.S. soldiers and diplomats rather than the horror and suffering of the Vietnamese they left behind. But Kennedy includes numerous stories of American servicemen who bucked their own commanders to stage black-op rescues of South Vietnamese citizens, and who emptied their own pockets to help feed the massed refugees. “I thought it was a lot easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” recalls Richard Armitage, who organized a massive rescue of South Vietnamese naval personnel that may have saved some 30,000 lives. The personal heroism described in Last Days in Vietnam can hardly excuse the tragic folly of the U.S. trying to fight a land war in southeast Asia, or the shame of walking away from a country it had pledged to defend. But the movie serves as a cautionary reminder that “the last man to die for a mistake,” as John Kerry so memorably phrased it, might be risking his life to save someone else.