Review: Last Days valuable documentary for the memory of the Fall of Saigon

With each passing year, the finer details of the Vietnam recede further out of public memory and into history. Some moments sadly never make it into broader consciousness in the first place. Along these lines, Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam strives to bring some lifeblood to the heroics surrounding the Fall of Saigon.

Teaching the world of the heroics of soldiers who evacuated the South Vietnamese from the nation as the North executed an invasion proves a noble mission, and the film adds a great deal on context even for those with some knowledge of the mad rush to clear the U.S. presence from Vietnam and who recall the boats full of refugees running away from the forces that would turn Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City.

The consequences of the Fall of Saigon, of course, are great In the longer view of America, but what’s most interesting about Last Days is that it reminds this nation of consequences often forgotten or brushed off. All know well the long impact of a war that suddenly felt lost, a bloody conflict that felt hollowed as the Vietnam mission grew murky and the nation’s near spotless record on military victory was suddenly tarnished.

Last Days, though, reminds that in a military sense, the war was already won two years prior to the Fall, when the Paris accords established a cease-fire and a two-state solution (like the one that still exists in Korea) seemed within reach. As much as anything, at least by Kennedy’s account, it was the resignation of Richard Nixon amid the decidedly domestic Watergate scandal that brought about the end. The North Vietnamese figured aggression to the South would reawaken Nixon’s wrath. But with a different president in charge in the U.S. and the knowledge all political support for a conflict in Vietnam utterly eroded stateside, the chance to overtake the South and have one Vietnam was possible again.

It’s historically interesting that this documentary was made by Kennedy, the youngest prodigy of Robert Kennedy, a leader who would lose his life while running a presidential campaign that promised to end the war in Vietnam. The film can easily be read as an indictment of the Ford administration and the Congress of the time for turning its attention on evacuation instead of the military retaliation and defense; indeed many of the military-minded in attendance at the Sarasota screening of the film seemed outwardly chagrined America abandoned its promise to meet Northern aggression with force. Would different promises have been made if Nixon never became president? Would the Fall of Saigon have been avoided or might it have happened sooner?

But Last Days isn’t about historical hypothesizing. It was about the actions of U.S. soldiers who dealt with the events that did play out in 1975.

There are certainly amazing tales that few would remember, if they ever knew them at all, about the acts of men that fateful April. Especially astounding was found footage of what took place on the U.S.S. Kirk, one of the destroyers that would see hundreds of refugees arrive by helicopters flown by both American and Vietnamese pilots. In a strangely humorous sequence, soldiers, push Vietnamese helicopters off the decks as fast as people can get off of them to make room for more choppers, tossing the flying machines into the sea lest the forces of Ho Chi Minh absorb into their own force instead.

The most stunning sequence, though, happens when a huge airlift of Vietnamese hovers by the ship in a chopper too large to land upon the Kirk, so refugees, including at least one baby, hurl out of the helicopter through the air and into the care of U.S. troops. Rather than land the emptied chopper in deck, the pilot then barrel rolls it into the sea. One of the moments during the Sarasota screening that incited the audience to burst into applause came as the pilot surfaced from the water ready to be rescued himself.

Still, the film for me overall felt more educational than inspirational. That’s subjective, of course, and the movie had plenty of the veterans in attendance in Sarasota beaming and impressed with the portrayal on film. One Vietnamese immigrant who actually fled on one of the helicopters was brought to tears from watching the film. Was it that these people lived through the events and had technicolor memories to draw from while the younger viewers like myself were impacted only by the grainy Super-8 archives?

Perhaps. Of course, that stresses exactly why it is so important for the film to be made now. It’s amazing that Kennedy in her research was able to find the footage that exists and to interview the people with first-hand information of the events. In attendance in Sarasota was Donald Turturro, a veteran from the Kirk who had much of that footage stored for decades in his garage. Would that work have been lost a generation from now to decay or disinterest fro, his descendants? At least we will never have to learn the answer to that question.

The film already hungers for some lost voices. The most fascinating character in Last Days proves to be Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam who seems equal parts foolish optimism and reckless denial, insistent nearly to the very end that Saigon was not in danger even as his men begged him to come to grips with the facts. Almost surely more lives could have been saved if Graham was willing to begin evacuations sooner. So why was he so stubborn in the face of facts? The men who knew him offer reasons-he had lost his only son in the war, he hoped the political winds could change-but since Martin passed away in 1990 the viewer is denied the chance to see new interviews of the man. Based on what Kennedy extracted from her subjects, including descriptions of the ways men subverted U.S. policy to help everyone from mistresses to favorite cooks, one can’t help what insight Martin took with him to his grave.

The film ultimately is as good the available first-hand account and surviving footage, and that is as good an account of the Fall of Saigon as has ever been put together in a documentary. When is plays on PBS channels, the film most certainly will be warmly received, and many of the limitations of the old grainy film and blurry broadcast news archives will prove less wearing to viewer who this on the small screen instead of the huge projection at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. In totality, the movie is worth seeing, just so the context of the mass evacuation of Vietnamese to America can be seen in a context more true.

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