Mark Reviews Movies

Last Days in Vietnam


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rory Kennedy

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 9/5/14 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 8, 2014

Almost 40 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War remains a powder keg of controversy. It remains the only definitive defeat for the United States, and that alone makes for a contentious debate, especially considering how the conflict has become a symbol. It's even tougher when one considers that what the war symbolizes is going to differ from one person's experiences and political beliefs to another's. Was it a miscalculation of strategy or a failure of will? Was it the wrong war or a righteous one? Should we even call it a war?

When it comes to blame, there is plenty to be passed around to multiple people and parties. Does it belong to Richard Nixon, who put political gain over everything else with the Watergate scandal? Was it his successor Gerald Ford, who might have been in over his head after suddenly taking the reins, or does that put the blame back on Nixon? Was it Congress, who knew that North Vietnamese forces were moving into South Vietnam after Paris Peace Accord but refused to provide funding? Was it the protestors at home, who helped turn it into a political firestorm, leaving politicians uncertain of what they should do and to what degree they should do it, or does that just make us bemoan the eternal state of the politician, who is always doing the expedient thing?

Maybe the blame isn't to be assigned to a few people or groups but to a philosophy that put the United States military in a country on the edge of the Indochina Peninsula—a country that many Americans couldn't point to on a map before the war and that those in each successive generation after will have an increasing level of difficulty identifying. If one tries to put a name on whatever that philosophy might be, though, we get into a whole new debate. Do we call it nationalism, anti-Communism, interventionism, or something else entirely? Do we label that philosophy—whatever we decide to call it—misguided or just? Don't even get started on the hypotheticals.

Last Days in Vietnam forgoes the myriad of political arguments, philosophical discussions, and blame-assigning exercises that have come to dominate the talk about the Vietnam War. That's not to say director Rory Kennedy (yes, of that Kennedy family—specifically the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy) and screenwriters Mark Bailey and Kevin McAlester don't acknowledge the swirling cloud of controversy that hovers over any conversation about Vietnam. Almost everything mentioned in the preceding paragraphs is either directly or indirectly addressed in the film, which takes no position one way or another on any of those matters. The film is passionate about remaining dispassionate in regards to its subject.

In the film, the morass of strategic confusion, political convenience, and stubborn personalities pushing an agenda is the prelude to a story of startling moral clarity. During those eponymous final days before the United States vacated Vietnam, a group of people put their personal investments and safety, political ideologies, and any other preconceived notions aside. There was one goal: to save as many people as possible from almost certain doom before the inevitable machinations of politics got in the way again.

They snuck and housed hopeful refugees in and on the grounds of the United States embassy. They drove people to ships, which took as many South Vietnamese evacuees as could fill every inch of those ships. They allowed foreign helicopters containing refugees to land on American aircraft carriers. They flew helicopters all day and through the night into a city where enemy forces were amassing artillery that could easily shoot them out of the sky.

To do many of these things, they defied direct orders, which allowed only for the evacuation of American citizens and select South Vietnamese personnel who had aided the United States during the war and who would certainly face execution when the Vietcong took control of the country. A few of the interview subjects state the obvious on the matter: There are times when what's legal is irrelevant, because, in those moments, there is only the right thing to do.

The film combines first-person accounts in the form of present-day interviews and stunning archival photographs and footage that are almost vivid enough to tell this story on their own. We see American sailors on an aircraft carrier pushing empty helicopters into the water to make room for the next one. We see private ships teeming with masses of people. We see United States Marines and diplomatic personnel staying behind in order to make room for more South Vietnamese refugees, because they know the instant that there are no more Americans left to withdraw from the city is the same instant that Ford, his advisors, and the military brass will call off the evacuation.

Kennedy and editor Don Kleszy assemble the interviews as an hour-by-hour report of the operation as a whole and, at times, a minute-by-minute recounting of its most perilous or triumphant moments. Yes, it's a collection of talking heads (including noteworthy figures, such as Henry Kissinger, but mostly consisting of ordinary United States military personnel and Vietnamese civilians), but even to this day, there is a sense of urgency in their stories. From members of the military and politicians, there is clear and emotionally distant narration that comes with time. The inherent, compelling juxtaposition is in the interviews with a refugee and others left behind, for whom losing a country—and all that is associated with that loss—is a timeless pain.

The film avoids delving into the obvious questions and the pitfalls that come with them. The result is an enthralling narrative of a brief moment in history that largely has been overlooked in the shadow of the complexities and disputes associated with the conflict of which that moment is a part. Last Days in Vietnam looks into a military defeat that still haunts and uncovers a victory for the best qualities of humanity. It may have been short-lived and minor in the bigger picture of the devastation wrought by the war, but that might make the victory even more significant.

Note: In addition to its limited theatrical release, the film is currently scheduled for broadcast on PBS on April 28, 2015.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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