Revisiting the chaotic endgame in 1975 Saigon, Last Days in Vietnam is the sort of immersive documentary that takes a single subject and wrings as much out of it as possible. Filmmaker Rory Kennedy, daughter of Bobby (a modifier you know she’s used to hearing), doesn’t try to contextualize the bloody, big-picture rationalizations that prolonged, for years, the so-called “conflict” in Vietnam. She puts a tight chronological focus on the events that led to those indelible images of people on rooftops, clamoring to climb aboard departing helicopters.
As North Vietnamese troops wrapped an ever-tighter noose around Saigon in their march south, “The burning question was,” in the words of Army Captain Stuart Herrington, “‘Who goes, and who gets left behind?’” Herrington is one of the movie’s eyewitness talking heads, which include other military guys, a CIA analyst and National Security Advisor and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
As the movie shows, the military proved pretty reliable about getting its own people out of Vietnam. The outcome was less certain for the 100,000-plus Southern Vietnamese who had worked closely with the Americans, and were most at risk of Communist reprisals. (Torture and imprisonment were likely, or summary execution.)
Officers on the ground saw the need for organized U.S. intervention on behalf of these locals. But there was one considerable obstacle, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. In many ways an admirable, old-school North Carolinian gentleman, Martin’s weakness was probably something he himself saw as strength: He refused to entertain the notion that the Vietcong would win, that Saigon would fall. When even top military leaders urged him to prepare a strategy for evacuating not only troops but native civilians, he dismissed their “negative talk.”
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, President Ford’s plea to earmark $722 million to fund evacuation was stonewalled by a Congress fatigued by Vietnam and stung by Richard Nixon’s shenanigans and resignation. So, back in ‘Nam, abandoned by their “superiors,” working soldiers began to devise black-ops means to transport imperiled locals out of the country, via land, sea and especially the sky.
Last Days is a testament to private ingenuity in the face of bureaucratic obfuscation and downright incompetence. But once the secret signals are triggered — a radio deejay gives a weather report stating that it’s 105 degrees and rising, then plays Bing Hope singing “White Christmas” — the evacuation begins at the American Embassy. For better and for worse.
Thousands get away. But as a few hundred South Vietnamese (including then-college student Binh Pho, one of the film’s talking heads) remain stranded on the embassy grounds, it dawns on the remaining military that help may not be coming — for these civilians, or for the men in uniform, either. Last Days’s last half hour takes on an ever-shifting mood of frustration, rage, guilt and sorrow as the clock ticks down.
For younger viewers (if any come near this movie), Last Days might seem to be a curio from a long-ago time, rather than the pulse-elevating reminder it is among older watchers, who remember the protracted agonies of Vietnam. Watching this documentary, and thinking about lessons the last 12 years of conflict have taught us, it’s clear that even the “best planned” military strategies can succeed only to a point. Battle plans are one thing. When it comes to how events play out on the ground, in real time, everything depends on luck, timing, and often the intervention of men and women of conscience, who are pursuing actions they think are right rather than toeing the official line.
Last Days in Vietnam. A documentary directed by Rory Kennedy. Unrated. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.