Director Rory Kennedy received a warm welcome from Sarasota Film Festival-goers on Friday night when her most recent documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, kicked off the 10-day event. But at a Q&A after the screening, it was the gathered veterans who lived through the Fall of Saigon firsthand who repeatedly had the crowd on the feet.Kennedy’s film explores the actions of U.S. soldiers during the Fall of Saigon on 1975, when many troops in and around the American embassy in Vietnam worked to evacuate tens of thousands of South Vietnamese out of the country just as Americans were pulling up stakes in the face of an invasion.
“Nobody I ever talked to knew that story,” Kennedy told the audience at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “What I was most excited about was understanding the stories of the people on the ground who went against U.S. policy.” The heroic actions, in the face of the actions of an ambassador in denial and political obstacles in the United States, were told through a movie that explores a little-known piece of the history of America’s most infamous war.
Kennedy brought onstage with her a number of military veterans, including Four-Star Marine General John Kelly. While Kelly talked about the frustration that the U.S. didn’t respond to a Northern invasion with military force, something promised in the Paris accords negotiated by President Nixon, the soldiers themselves made good on a commitment to the people on the ground. “It shows us military people with tremendous honor preserving some level of honor for our country.”
But the most dominating voice at the Q&A was that of Paul Jacobs, the Captain of the U.S.S. Kirk when so many South Vietnamese were arriving on the ship for evacuation. “This was a great movie to honor the Vietnam veterans,” he said, noting the distinct change in American attitudes toward veterans of that war today compared to the immediate aftermath of the conflict.
A number of other veterans were also brought on stage, including some of the last Marines to evacuate from the American embassy during the Fall of Saigon. Many of those men in fact live in the Sarasota area now, and some drove from other communities in the state. Every time veterans were called on stage, standing ovations broke out at the Van Wezel, and every story from a veteran was received with applause.