One would think that, nearly 40 years after its official end, just about every story to tell about the Vietnam War would have been told. Considering the vast ocean of archival footage that exists from the time, it is the sort of war that was not waged in the shadows. Even still, documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy has put together a new project looking at the end of the war, Last Days in Vietnam, seeking to gain a new understanding about the final days of Saigon through archival footage and present-day interviews with those on the ground and in the air at the time.
Taking the iconic photo of South Vietnamese refugees shutting their way onto a helicopter perched on top of a building as a focal point, Kennedy paints a picture of what it was like at the end of US involvement in Saigon. Lacking a narrator, the film relies heavily on the first-hand experiences of a few higher-ups who were directly involved in the process. Chiefly among them is Stuart Herrington, a retired Colonel charged with planning the extraction of US personnel and Vietnam refugees in the face of intransigence from the US ambassador to Vietnam, Graham Martin. Also key to the process is Richard Armitage, who is not the actor from the Hobbit movies, but a naval officer who organized part of the exodus by ship. It was a tense time, marked by a chaotic and constantly shifting policy from the US government, as represented by a recorded statement from Henry Kissinger. As the government focused solely on ensuring the safe passage of their own citizens at the expense of the Vietnamese, the troops on the ground had a much different understanding of the situation. These Saigon residents had become the US soldiers’ friends, wives and mistresses, making the concept of leaving them at the mercy of the marauding North Vietnamese a policy for which they could not stand. The majority of its running time focuses on the final twenty-four hours before Saigon’s fall when the chaos was at its peak.
Formally, Last Days in Vietnam does not distinguish itself all that much. It fits the mold of a standard talking heads/archival footage documentary, so it must find other ways to entice a seasoned documentary film fan. To Kennedy’s credit, he is clearly aware of the treasure trove of footage available to him, and has managed to stitch together a compelling narrative that looks at the end of the Vietnam War in a new way. The majority of the interviews are from the US perspective, though there is a South Vietnamese presence, but even with that considered, this film spends noticeably more time on the South Vietnamese aspects of the extraction than has been done in the past. The characters are colorful, especially Ambassador Martin (who died in 1990 and thus is not one of the interviewed), a fascinating character who obstinately refused to consider the possibility of extraction until the bitter end, at which point he changed his tune remarkably, and their stories are corroborated by the spectacular footage of Saigon and the US embassy that served as base of operations for the process. From the helicopter pilot who flew back and forth from an aircraft carrier to the mainland for sixteen straight hours shuttling soldiers and civilians alike to safety to Herrington recalling the weight on his mind of leaving behind another 420 refugees who were not permitted to be withdrawn from their besieged city, Last Days in Vietnam always remains engaging even if it is a story that has arguably already been told.
Filling in the blanks with computer generated models and maps, Kennedy creates a full and satisfying view of the mayhem in the final 24 hours of the US’ involvement in the war. The focus on the plight of the Vietnamese, complete with incredible footage of a sea of people throwing themselves onto ships and helicopters to flee their homes, and those helicopters being summarily dumped into the sea to make room for the next one to land. It is judiciously edited to keep the action flowing, taking full advantage of its myriad of storytelling techniques, and Gary Lionelli’s music is emotional and evocative. Last Days in Vietnam is polished and professional, an exciting and engaging new look at a war that seemed to be out of them.