In Last Days in Vietnam, archival footage is both thrilling and heartbreaking, at once emblematic of the broader saga of so many mistakes set against so many heroic efforts.
"You can't stay here. You can't live with the Communists." Remembering the fall of Saigon in 1975, Binh Pho, a college student at the time, underlines the utter lack of options before him. "Especially," he adds, "if you have a connection with the Americans, then you really got to get out."
This idea, this need to get out, is the starting point for Rory Kennedy's smart, poignant documentary Last Days in Vietnam. On the one hand, the film—now in theaters and on its way to PBS—makes clear the damage done to Vietnam by the US government and military, as institutions defined and limited by their self-interests. The end of the US war was not even close to an end for the people in Southeast Asia, despite the chaotic rush to exit that is perhaps best remembered in the West's collective memory as Hubert Van Es’ photograph of South Vietnamese civilians climbing a ladder to a US helicopter, set atop the Pittman Apartments.
The film makes a subtler case too, that the end of the US war was not even really the end for the US. Even as American personnel departed, they left behind friends and colleagues, family members and memories, only to bring back with them a profound, multifaceted sense of loss that shapes the national consciousness to this day.
To this point, Last Days in Vietnam also reveals the lessons that have not been learned. The intelligence officer Stuart Herrington, who serves here as an emotional center and a narrator with remarkably detailed recall, lays out the stakes facing Americans leaving and also those Vietnamese who would not. "As we began to contemplate evacuation," he begins, "the question, the burning question, was, who goes and who gets left behind?" That this contemplation was late to start only added to the difficulty of the answer.
As several interviewees tell it, US Ambassador Graham Martin was a decent man who couldn't bear to admit defeat, in part because he'd lost a stepson in combat in Vietnam, and also because he was sincerely hopeful that the US was actually doing good. His hopefulness brings to mind the misunderstandings and errors currently reshaping Iraq and Afghanistan. And chaos was part of the process. CIA analyst Frank Snepp underlines that while the Paris Agreement promised "peace with honor," its effectiveness depended on Nixon in place (the enemy, he says, "thought he was a madman"). Post-Watergate, when Ford was installed, all promises were off. The agreement, reports Snepp, "was a masterpiece of ambiguity," and without Nixon, "Hanoi suddenly saw the road to Saigon as being open."
As the North moved South (or again, as Snepp phrases it, "decided to escalate, escalate, escalate, at every turn to see if the United States would react"), the costs of staying plainly outweighed those of going. This because and although Ford asked Congress for funding for a deliberate withdrawal, $722 million USD in emergency aid for South Vietnam. Here the film offers an elegant brief on how this ask was doomed to fail, as former Congressman Pete McCloskey remembers for you the circumstances (Congress was tired of the war, distrustful of the South, and just wanted out) and Henry Kissinger reminds you of the devastating cynicism with which he and the administration ran the war: "We knew we weren’t going to get the $722 million dollars," he says. "By that time it made no big difference, but President Ford said he owed it to South Vietnam to make a request."
The consequences of Kissinger's realpolitik persist to this day, of course, but even at the time, people within the US government and military were resisting. Herrington told his South Vietnamese colleagues to wait for his signal for the 29 April 1975 exodus (the cue: the DJ on American radio in Saigon would announce, "The temperature is 105 and rising," then play Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"), at which point he would pick them up at the Embassy. The State Department's Joseph McBride took it on himself to drive a truck between the Embassy and the docks, where ships and boats would transport refugees. And Ambassador Martin put off his own departure until the last possible minute, at dawn on 30 April, sending as many Vietnamese as he could on the choppers that ended up moving people—a definitive last resort for transportation, being obviously too small to move enough people efficiently—before he finally agreed to board one himself, under President Ford's order.
For all that's admirable about these endeavors, Last Days in Vietnam insists, what matters here (not least for the men so endeavoring) are the Vietnamese, the population devastated by the American misadventure and the individuals lost and saved. As much as Binh Pho believed the promises that he'd be saved, he's horrified when he learns that, in fact, there won't be room for him on one of the helicopters. The film cuts to footage of hundreds of workers and their families climbing at the Embassy wall, desperate, children afraid and parents determined. Those most affected by US errors 9and heroics too) are granted faces and voices.
The rendering of this confusion and anxiety on the last of the last days is at once startling and sadly to be expected. Some of the footage hasn't been seen before, such as the moment when Miki Nguyen's father, a helicopter pilot, tried to and his Chinook on the deck of the USS Kirk, a deck that couldn't accommodate it. Super-8 film shows this moment as Miki—just six years old at the time—tells the story of how he and his siblings jumped off the chopper with their mother. "it caused a lot of wind, a lot of commotion," remembers a witness, as you see the Chinook hover, then roll off the edge of the ship into the sea, just as his father jumps off.
Such action is thrilling and heartbreaking, at once emblematic of the broader saga of so many mistakes set against so many heroic efforts. That so much of what went right had to be managed against official American edicts makes this saga incredible. It also makes for a frightening gloss on American decisions today. Deftly and compellingly, Last Days in Vietnam remembers what's happened and what's been done.