An official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and winner of the audience award for best feature film at the Nantucket Film Festival, Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam documents the weeks leading up to the fall of Saigon, primarily focusing on the former U.S. servicemen who assisted in the evacuation of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and military officials.
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The documentary weaves together interviews with these U.S. veterans, South Vietnamese survivors, and footage from U.S. politicians’ sphere in Washington, D.C., as well as footage of the chaos and displacement during the North Vietnamese invasion of the South. Through this tapestry of voices, the film highlights the discrepancies between the rhetoric of political policy and the firsthand experiences of the thousands of people who those policies affected. Many U.S. servicemen recognized the blind spots in D.C.’s mandates to halt evacuation of the Vietnamese, so they participated in various Black Ops to save as many Vietnamese lives as possible. Setting this defiant standard, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin refused to leave the embassy until all of the Vietnamese huddled in the courtyard were lifted out of Saigon on the Marines’ helicopters. Following suit, former U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington, one of the last Americans to leave the embassy, reflected that the part he played in evacuating the Vietnamese “was not about illegal and legal, but a matter of right and wrong.” Richard Armitage echoed that his orders-defying decision to rescue thousands of Vietnamese stranded on boats in the South China Sea was made in his resolve that to “beg forgiveness [was better] than [to] ask permission.” Ultimately, President Gerald Ford’s orders to finally cease evacuations in the early morning hours of April 30, 1975, were enforced without exception, and Martin and the eleven remaining servicemen were helicoptered to an aircraft carrier, leaving behind about 420 Vietnamese in the embassy courtyard. It is Herrington’s voice, laden with regret, that opens the documentary, as he laments his lingering ambivalence about the moral dilemma involved in deciding who left Viet Nam and who stayed.
The documentary is very narrowly focused in terms of time and space. The film covers only the days immediately leading up to U.S. retreat from Viet Nam and largely on the embassy alone. There is little attention to the rest of the country, and other evacuation efforts, such as Operation Babylift, are not mentioned. Even within the film’s narrow spatio-temporal parameters, Kennedy omits the important voices of the Vietnamese wives and children of U.S. servicemen who were able to bypass immigration laws to be evacuated. Their stories should not continually be eclipsed by the U.S.-centric perspective, especially given that these women and children were part of many of these American men’s families.
Also, as much of the film relies on footage shot by journalists through whose eyes we witness these events, it seems odd that only one journalist, NBC’s Jim Laurie is interviewed. His comments about South Vietnamese “looting” the embassy after U.S. retreat out of “frustration and anger” seem presumptuous. Renaming acts of survival with criminalizing terms such as “looting” speaks to the power of journalists to narrate history, so the complexity of this particular historical moment warrants the inclusion of more than one journalists’ voice, American and Vietnamese alike. Despite its limitations, the film is an important exploration of the enduring histories of the U.S.-Viet Nam War, documenting the individual stories behind the collective memory dictated by media images and political rhetoric.
Most heartrending of the documentary’s footage are the images of desperation—South Vietnamese civilians sprinting down the runway at Tan Son Nhut Airport and scrambling onto U.S. military airplanes just moments before they take off, bewildered children being passed assembly line-style onto helicopters and ships. Though very important for all audience members to see, the images of loss were most difficult for me to stomach because that emotion reverberates in my family members to this day. Loss is most sharply articulated in the images that depict South Vietnamese military men shredding their identifying documents, pushing their helicopters off the aircraft carrier and into the ocean, stripping off their uniforms, and destroying their flags. The film spotlights the U.S. retreat as the South Vietnamese’s loss of homeland for both those who left and those who stayed. Former ARVN Lieutenant Dam Pham tearfully ruminates, “Is this what we fought for?”
The issues that this film raises—what we fight for and how, the blurry line between right and wrong, the chasm between politicians in their offices and the civilians and military personnel on the ground—is not only pertinent to exploring the histories of the U.S.-Viet Nam War as we approach the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, but also to current events. I watched Last Days in Vietnam the day after President Obama announced Congress’s vote to provide military support to Syria in combatting ISIS. As the U.S. government has erroneously promised before, Obama assures that the involvement will be minimal and won’t unnecessarily risk American or Syrian lives, among other empty promises that ring hollow. The news coverage of persisting violence rendered me even more disillusioned with the U.S. government and mournful for the civilian and military lives that will inevitably be lost. Similarly, when I paraphrased the news for my mother, whose mind is often still operating in war-era survival mode, she simply clicked her tongue in disapproval and told me to stock up on water and canned foods. But this frustration and fear makes the messages of Kennedy’s film all the more resonant. Last Days in Vietnam attempts to memorialize the pockets of humanity in global arenas of violence so that we can better learn from history. Ideally.
In line with Kennedy’s project to conserve the threads of connection during war, I must point out that there are enough hopeful and inspiring moments in the documentary, so you won’t be completely bummed out when you go see it (and you should!). I enjoyed hearing the U.S. veterans speak Vietnamese, surprisingly well, and Armitage reflecting that once he learned to joke in the language he began to dream it as well. Most uplifting is the story of Miki Nguyen who is interviewed about his father, a South Vietnamese Chinook pilot who, unable to land his huge helicopter on the aircraft carrier, hovered inches above the water and pushed his family members out of the windows, including a then six-year-old Miki. He then jumped into the water as his helicopter rolled into the water, still-spinning blades splashing as he swam to the aircraft carrier where U.S. pilots were clapping and cheering, eyes wide in awe of Nguyen’s deft piloting. My brother and I turned to each other in the dark theater and whispered, “Badass.”
Of course, this is the center of hope: My brother and I, two American-born Vietnamese, are able sneak in bánh mi and gỏi cuốn into a theater, learn more about our shared history through Kennedy’s film, and afterward spend the afternoon talking through our thoughts about politics, history, culture, and identity. And I get to write this here. At the very least, this documentary can generate discussion.
Last Days in Vietnam continues to play at Los Angeles’s NuArt theater until September 25th and in Irvine and San Diego from the 26th to October 3rd. To watch a trailer and find dates and theaters for screenings in other major cities throughout the U.S., click here.
Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and is working on a PhD in literature at UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.
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