No. 2 of my attempt to review all Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature continues, this time with Last Days in Vietnam.
PBS’ The American Experience seldom misses, and its latest is one of the series’ bigger hits.
The 98-minute documentary is not a comprehensive look at the Vietnam War, but specifically the final few days of the American presence in Saigon before North Vietnamese forces completed its occupation of South Vietnam. The final days in Saigon in April of 1975 was America at its best and worst.
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Directed by Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy and the niece of the former President of the United States, she uses previously unseen footage, but it is the interviews that make this such a compelling movie.
The key player in the movie is actually no longer alive. Former American ambassador Graham Martin, who died in 1990, is the man who dug in despite political pressure from U.S. politicians to finally pull every American out of Vietnam. He did not want to go, and continually insisted things would change that would allow Americans to remain in Saigon.
President Gerald Ford was asking for assistance from Congress to get out, which was quickly rebuked. Eventually the invading forces from the North were making rapid progress, which forced the Americans to completely evacuate. The majority of the movie focuses on the American Embassy in Saigon, and all of those using that locale as a safe haven to get out of the crumbling nation.
The interviews Kennedy compiled come from all angles - from the Vietnamese who were there to the American forces trying to help - are riveting. Enough time has passed that the experience no longer carries the weight of that horrifying and sad period had for so long. Those interviewed are not angry but simply recount the events.
Of course, there is the story of the famous picture of the U.S. military helicopter loading up passengers from the top of the American embassy. It was not the embassy, of course, but rather an apartment building of a CIA employee in Saigon.
The Americans there in the city, and in the Embassy, were doing everything possible - under the direction of Martin - to take every single South Vietnamese national who wanted to escape with them. Every transport that left, sometimes over stuffed with people, included but one American while the rest were South Vietnamese. The movie describes a scene of fear, panic, desperation, and calm chaos.
In all, despite limited resources, the Americans were able to evacuate roughly 135,000 people thanks to the incredible selfless efforts of American military and operatives stationed there.
The recounting of the airlifts are constructed in an hour-by-hour manner that lead up to the inevitable sadness that not everybody could make it; there were thousands stranded inside the embassy when the last helicopter left.
Kennedy’s interviews with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former naval officer Richard Armitage are good, but the interviews with the South Vietnamese nationals - some of whom got out and some that did not - are full of astounding detail that this actually happened. This was an extreme human condition marked by tremendous fear, and compassion.
This is not an anti-war film but rather just a look back at a sad and complicated situation that featured the best and worst of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7760