History can be an elusive thing for even the most resourceful documentary filmmaker. Archival footage of recent historical events often consists of familiar clips from TV news, leading many documentarians to rely too heavily on talking heads and some to recreate events using actors. Co-written and directed by Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, Last Days in Vietnam averts those pitfalls by using astonishing and previously unseen footage of America's harrowing exit from Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. Kennedy constructs an immersive tale of real-world heroism that easily transcends politics and national allegiances.
Last Days In Vietnam's first act sets the scene. The ceasefire between North and South Vietnam established by the Paris peace accords of 1973 dissolved in the wake of President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. By the next year, North Vietnamese troops and tanks were rolling toward Saigon, home of the American Embassy, but there was no appetite in the U.S. Congress to continue to fund the American war effort. The American ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, wouldn't even allow his staff to draw up lists of potential evacuees, which would have included many South Vietnamese collaborators unlikely to survive the fall of Saigon. According to his staff, Martin couldn't abide negative thinking about the final outcome of the war.
The rest of the film focuses on the events of two days, April 28-29, 1975, as thousands of Vietnamese sought refuge inside the embassy compound and American staff scrambled to get themselves and their compatriots out of the country.
Kennedy and her crew dug deep into the video archives of American TV networks to find rare footage that directly illustrates stories told in new interviews with people who played various roles in the evacuation. The star of the show is 12 minutes of 8-millimeter film footage — left undeveloped for almost 40 years and recently found in the attic of a former U.S. Navy sailor — that documents a daring rescue effort involving military helicopters and a U.S. Naval ship on the high seas. Digitally generated maps and 3-D modeling of the embassy compound and the city of Saigon help Kennedy tell her tale with clarity and precision.
For all its visual impact, Last Days in Vietnam finds its voice through the heroic personal choices made by American and South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel, often on a moment's notice and under extreme duress. They broke laws and defied superiors, risking life and career to save thousands from the horrors of North Vietnamese re-education camps or death. It's a rare documentary film that can inspire new understanding of a complex and often impenetrable era in American history like the Vietnam War.
What makes Last Days in Vietnam so powerful is its clear connection to our current troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Should we enter a war without an exit strategy? And If there's no clear exit strategy, doesn't that tell us hard truths about the war? These questions won't be leaving our minds anytime soon.