The stark simplicity of Rory Kennedy’s masterful and Oscar-worthy Last Days in Vietnam stands in contrast to the drama of this complex and little discussed historical moment. When modern wars end, they are normally summed up in terms of strategies and battles, of winners and losers, how they impacted the great game of geopolitical gamesmanship. Except in the cases of spectacular events like the firebombing of Axis cities during World War II, the fates of civilians are rarely discussed. The Vietnam War isn’t much different. One of the factors that makes Kennedy’s film stand out is how it refuses to look away from one “burning question” about the end of the war: “Who goes … and who gets left behind?”
In the film’s telling, the 1975 evacuation of Americans and their dependents from Saigon was a long-foreseen catastrophe whose implications were ignored until it was almost too late. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords allowed President Richard Nixon the face-saving pretense of “peace with honor” by bringing American troops home without admitting a defeat. But the North Vietnamese never gave up on their goal of reunification. In March 1975, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched an assault which the demoralized and poorly led South Vietnamese army (ARVN) had little hope fighting off without American help. It became apparent that the collapse of South Vietnam was a rapidly approaching foregone conclusion and that something needed to be done about the 5,000 or more Americans still there.
After its breathless opening montage, Kennedy’s film is a tick-tock narrative about the evacuation itself. Her roster of talking heads is at first mostly American military and intelligence types who were on the ground for it. But it’s later buttressed by a good number of Vietnamese military and civilians hoping to be on one of the planes, helicopters, or boats out of the country. After the executions of suspect civilians during battles like the Tet Offensive, there was little hope that a victorious NVA would be forgiving of those who had worked with the Americans and the Saigon government. (Tens of thousands would be sent to reeducation and labor camps after the fall, with untold numbers executed.) Terror spread across the country as the ARVN collapsed. The NVA raced towards Saigon as the American ambassador Graham Martin refused to prepare for evacuation, hoping to forestall panic.
For most of the Americans, it was an easy moral decision to ignore regulations to get people out. Talking about the ad hoc plan to evacuate thousands of people on a decrepit flotilla of boats that’s described later as being “like something out of Exodus,” Richard Armitage — then a special forces adviser who later served as one of the cooler heads in the George W. Bush administration — says he simply thought it was easier to beg for forgiveness then plead for permission. After years of living and fighting there, many Americans had close Vietnamese friends, girlfriends, wives, and even children; in one deft edit of the chaotic Saigon street footage, Kennedy focuses on a frightened child who clearly looks to be the offspring of an African American soldier and a South Vietnamese woman. But the tricky part came in the mechanics of the evacuation itself.
The final airlift began on April 29. Some 10,000 people crowded around the city-block-sized American embassy compound in Saigon; the only way out after the NVA had shelled the airport. Hour after hour, 75 Marine helicopters carried people out to the American fleet in the South China Sea. Ambassador Martin, who initially comes off as a feckless bureaucrat, becomes something of a hero in the final hours, refusing to leave the embassy as long as Vietnamese dependents were still there.
Meanwhile, as the NVA closed in, ARVN helicopter pilots loaded up everyone they could fit and flew out to sea, hoping to find a ship to land on. In one of the film’s more incredible stories, the USS Kirk landed one ARVN Huey after another on its small landing deck; after each craft was emptied, they pushed it off into the ocean to make room for the next. Later, the pilot of a helicopter too big to land on the Kirk, hung overhead long enough for everyone (including his family) to jump onto the deck before he engineered a controlled crash in the ocean and leaped out safely himself.
Kennedy’s seamlessly dramatic film is packed with these small vignettes of heart-rending heroism. But, like many films in the American Experience series — although getting a theatrical release now, it will be broadcast on PBS in April 2015 — Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t skimp on the darker implications of its story. Even after talking about all they had done to save as many Vietnamese friends and allies as they could, many of the Americans still seem ripped up by the entire experience. They know that all their efforts couldn’t save everybody, and like the whole war itself, that can’t help but feel like a betrayal.