LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM
Pros: Comprehensive and factual, with a nice selection of archival film footage
Cons: Quite dry – it plays like a television documentary, not a feature film
Telling the story of the events of April 1975, which saw thousands of American military personnel – and many more thousands of South Vietnamese citizens – trying to scramble out of the country as the communist military closed in on Saigon, the 2014 documentary Last Days in Vietnam is a competent but somewhat uninspired production. Appropriately enough, the film was picked up for distribution by PBS’s American Experience Films, but I found that this program existed in the same realm as 2005’s March of the Penguins. Like that film, Last Days is comprehensive with regard to its subject and perfectly fine to watch, painting a detailed portrait of a rather unfortunate period in American and world history. That said, it’s virtually the same sort of thing that plays on PBS on any given evening, neither better nor worse than the typical television documentary. I guess I just wasn’t impressed enough by Last Days to feel that either an Oscar Nomination or an elevated level of attention was really warranted: it just really didn’t strike me as being all that special.
The program begins with a crash course examination of the latter stages of American involvement in Vietnam. By 1973, with public opinion firmly against any further action in Southeast Asia, American president Richard Nixon announced that a cease-fire agreement had been signed in Paris, allowing for the vast US military force in the region to start exiting the combat theater. A year later, Nixon left office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and in late 1974, the North Vietnamese leadership tested the ever-waning resolve of the United States by initiating a full-scale invasion of the South. As they likely anticipated, American leadership (namely, new president Gerald Ford) mostly sat by as communist forces tore through the country, virtually obliterating the under-equipped and increasingly desperate South Vietnamese army. By April 1975, all seemed lost in Vietnam, and despite American ambassador Graham Martin’s reluctance to accept the hopelessness of the situation, evacuation plans were being put in place and carried out – with or without official clearance.
Directed by Rory Kennedy(daughter of the late Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy), Last Days in Vietnam is told mostly from the mouths of various people who were in the midst of this evacuation process. First priority was to get any and every American out of the country, but there also was a heroic attempt made to rescue as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible. Many of these Vietnamese had worked with the Americans during previous combat operations and were likely to be executed or imprisoned if they were captured by the communists. Several concurrent stories are told during the documentary: some of the interview subjects reveal the situation in and around the American embassy in Saigon (which became an absolute mob of people trying to flee the country), while other interviewees explain an operation to take several boatloads of personnel from an outpost in Can Tho downriver to the South China Sea or discuss what was happening on board the vessels offshore which had to accept an absolute deluge of refugees. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveals what was going on in the mind of the President and his staff. The cuts to black which mark the transition between these various stories are somewhat awkward, but listening to the first-hand recollections of the events makes the picture more poignant – especially when it comes time for the last helicopter to leave the embassy despite the fact that some 400-plus individuals were still awaiting rescue.
Accompanying the interviews is a truly remarkable collection of archival footage which captures most every major event mentioned. Many of the images associated with the fall of Saigon have become iconic: helicopters picking up passengers lined up on rooftops, choppers being pushed into the sea to make way for more refugees on the nearby ships, crowds of people scrambling to vault the fence or storm the gates of the American embassy. Indeed, it’s the stories relating to these images that get the most screen time during the film, but I was more impressed by the material which documented the other, less widely-known events taking place during the evacuation (especially noteworthy are audio tapes made during 1975 by a sailor stationed just off the Vietnamese coast). Edited together exceptionally well, the program makes use of appropriately somber and often quite dramatic music by Gary Lionell as well as computer graphics which identify and establish the various locations discussed. These rudimentary animated sequences aren’t flashy, but they nevertheless do a fine job of allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the ongoing operations involved in terms of logistics and strategy.
Honestly, there’s nothing especially wrong with Last Days in Vietnam, but it may not be the production that some viewers might be expecting. Though its title seems to suggest a more far-reaching examination of the end of the Vietnam War, Last Days actually focuses almost singularly on the evacuation process. There’s very limited commentary about the Vietnam War as a whole; I actually found that Kennedy’s documentary almost assumes the viewer has some working knowledge about the conflict going in, and a viewer is unlikely to gain much far-reaching understanding about this conflict based solely on this particular film. Maybe I’m just too used to documentary filmmakers getting on their soapbox anymore, but I was a bit surprised that Kennedy didn’t take the chance to point out the extremely obvious parallels between the war in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. This sort of commentary may have stretched the boundaries of what a PBS documentary was expected to do, but I think some provocative content would have been beneficial in a film that walked the straight and narrow almost to a fault.
In some ways, it’s to the film’s credit that Last Days in Vietnam does stay so focused on the task at hand and keep its eye on the prize. Still, this documentary seemed a bit dry to me – certainly, it covers its subject quite well, but the film’s payoff seemed rather meager since there wasn’t a big message or obvious point that revealed itself in its final moments. Additionally, the lack of much directorial flair or pizazz made this play like a typical made-for-TV piece and it didn’t at all strike me as something entirely worthy of a theatrical release. If anything, I might say that Kennedy’s film is noticeably plain and entirely ordinary, a film that’s watchable because of the compelling stories being told by its interview subjects, not because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. Without doubt, Last Days in Vietnam is a well-made, informative, and interesting documentary, but it won’t hold much appeal to those not already interested in the subject. Though it’s worthwhile, I’d give it only a moderate recommendation.
3/10 : Isolated glimpses of combat violence and related fatalities, though not overly graphic
2/10: A couple instances of minor profanity.
2/10: A straight-forward, PBS-style documentary.
“The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm. Promises made in good faith; promises broken. People being hurt because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam War is a story that kinda sounds like that…”