Review: Last Days in Vietnam

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of North Vietnam’s victory over the South and the reunification, by force, of Vietnam.

Fresh from it’s Academy Award nomination, Rory Kennedy’s 2014 documentary on the Fall of Saigon is as powerful as it is poignant.

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The Vietnam War has always fascinated me. Born out of the post-World War Two destruction of the colonial era and the rise of American communist fear, it encapsulated twentieth century war and peace, international and domestic politics, social progressiveness, and human madness. My education on the subject occurred organically, beginning with fleeting mentions in popular culture and eventually culminating in my master’s dissertation, completed a few years back. Like many others from my generation with a high degree of interest in the war, both the small and the silver screen played a large role in the development of my knowledge. From Principal’s Seymour Skinner’s bitter mutterings about his treatment as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Viet Cong, and the fact that he felt abandoned by his government, to the big screen epics of Coppola, Stone, and Stallone, among others, television and film gradually revealed the surface of the sheer chaos associated with the war both in Vietnam and the resulting domestic crisis the US, allowing me to progress to the appropriate contemporary academic and journalistic sources. Important also were the documentaries covering the topic, including the perspective of American ground troops in Vietnam in HD (2011), as well as Oliver Stone’s revisiting of the conflict he both served in and depicted in his 1986 war epic, Platoon, during a key chapter of his frank, brutal series, Untold History of the United States (2012).

The latest documentary to make the grade, Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, recently received a deserved nomination for Best Documentary at the 87th Academy Awards. Covering the ever intriguing US and South Vietnamese preparation for the conclusive event of the war, known as the Fall of Saigon – the result of the North Vietnamese 1975 Spring Offensive – the main focus is the April 29th US led emergency evacuation via its embassy (and CIA offices) of the remaining American citizens and military personnel still in country, along with thousands of South Vietnamese refugees. The Fall of Saigon has been covered in previous television documentaries, and even just by reading its Wikipedia page you get a feel for the frenzied nature of such a frightening and logistical nightmare, but never before have the heart-racing, sometimes heart-breaking facts been combined with the vast amount of truly incredible footage conveyed here, contextualised by unique, fresh perspective from those directly and indirectly involved, both American and Vietnamese. Poignant also was the timing of my viewing. Despite premiering at Sundance over a year ago, we’re now just short of the 40th anniversary of North Vietnam’s victory and the resulting decimation of Saigon’s population. If there was ever a good time to watch, the time is now.

I won’t go into the specifics of the content too much, as it would defeat the object of watching something based purely in harsh reality, but the raw coverage of South Vietnam’s rapid demise is itself the real gem of the picture. Cut together with wonderful tempo and narrated only by the words of the talking heads, adding to the cold, hard actuality of the situation, one is totally immersed in the panic that struck Saigon once both the US presence and, in turn, the local people realised that the city’s impending doom was close. Hectic shots of a sea of people running towards fleeing aircraft as the coastal city of Da Nang falls, with news crews commentating in horrified fashion on board, sets the tone for what’s to come in Saigon. Startling tales of both humble heroism and acts of honour from American and Vietnamese alike paint a vivid human picture over the top of the remarkable footage, one of the standout moments being the phenomenal piloting and controlled, sea-based crash landing of a Chinook helicopter by a South Vietnamese pilot, looking to escape with his family and anyone else he could carry.

The talking heads involved are generally excellent, with some truly emotionally engaging stories to tell. The inclusion of former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger seems unnecessary however, and the film could easily have done without his minor contributions, which add little of value. Watching the man who was partly responsible for so much of the aerial destruction that rained down on North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia throughout the war, much of it illegal or at the very least wholly immoral, leaves a bitter taste when viewed alongside the conveyance of genuine, in-the-moment plight and intriguing facts by the other contemporaries featured during the film. I must stress that this is minor negative and more a footnote of my own personal feelings than anything else, as any filmmaker able to secure an interview with the usually media-shy Kissinger would of course be mad not to proceed. It’s just a shame that in this case it makes little difference whether his parts were included or not.

Hard hitting, disturbing, fascinating – the Fall of Saigon is one of those events in American and international history that will forever be synonymous with the haunting nature of outright chaos, mass panic, and overwhelming fear. Key here also however is the truly extraordinary level of nerve, bravery, and sacrifice in the name of humanity that sprouted and fought in amongst the madness on the ground and the connotative decision making associated with it; the intertwining, sometimes counterproductive, but ultimately progressive nature of which was summed up by the man at the centre of the US evacuation, Ambassador Graham Martin. A film that should certainly be shown in history classes the world over, Last Days in Vietnam is the perfect vessel for such a historical moment, serving as a poignant reminder of what, above all else, the US brought to, and left behind in Vietnam: tragedy.

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