Sometimes the stories we think we know, the stories where we don't want to hear another word, turn out to be the most involving of all, the ones we in fact know the least about. So it is with "Last Days in Vietnam."
Not an examination of why we were in Vietnam or whether we should have been there in the first place, this altogether splendid documentary, directed by Rory Kennedy, is instead a thrilling and dramatic narrative of what happened in country as the wheels started to fall off of America's involvement.
Filled with compelling first-person stories both heroic and heartbreaking, "Last Days" details a complete debacle that brought out the best in all kinds of people. It is also the best work yet by Kennedy, the film her entire career has pointed her toward.
Kennedy is a veteran nonfiction filmmaker with either director or producer credits on some 25 docs, and her output has gotten increasingly impressive. Her last film, "Ethel," a portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, was one of her best; before that, she directed the excellent, Emmy-winning "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib."
Kennedy has put it all together with "Last Days." She has the clout to get the right people on film, from 91-year-old Henry Kissinger to Marine pilots and U.S. Embassy guards, and she has honed her instincts about what a great story is and how best to present it on-screen.
Using expertly selected newsreel footage and fine visual effects by Doug Whitney to supplement her interviews, Kennedy and screenwriters Mark Bailey & Keven McAlester tell a series of interlocking tales about resourceful people who "ignored the rules and followed their hearts" when they could — as well as what happened when they couldn't.
First to speak is U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, who foregrounds the film's theme when he explains, "as we began to contemplate evacuation, the burning question was who goes, who gets left behind." Herrington's galvanizing story of clandestinely evacuating the families of the Vietnamese who worked with him sets the intensely personal tone for what is to come.
At this point, "Last Days" steps back and fills in some of Vietnam's political history, starting with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to guarantee a permanent two-state solution.
But according to former CIA analyst Frank Snepp, the glue holding that treaty together was North Vietnam's belief that President Richard Nixon was a complete madman, ready to bring U.S. troops back in a heartbeat. So one of the unintended consequences of Nixon's August 1974 Watergate-related resignation was that it emboldened the north to invade, which it did in force in March 1975.
Complicating the situation as those forces swept south was the attitude of American Ambassador Graham Martin. He'd lost a son in country, and partly as a result, refused to even discuss the possibility of evacuation and told anyone who disagreed, "I won't have this negative talk." This willfulness led to various under-the-radar, black-ops-type operations like the one that Herrington detailed.
The biggest chunk of "Last Days" focuses on what was to literally be the very last day in Saigon, giving an almost hour-by-hour account of what happened to a wide variety of folks, Americans and Vietnamese, in numerous locales on April 29, 1975, that fateful final date.
Because Martin had delayed evacuation plans for so long, the situation at the American Embassy was especially chaotic. Not only did secret documents have to be destroyed but also a full eight hours was spent burning $1 million in cash. And the question of what to do with the close to 3,000 Vietnamese who had talked their way onto the embassy grounds was an especially fraught one.
Perhaps the most astonishing story of that final day is what happened on the Kirk, a small destroyer escort that was part of the U.S. fleet sent to facilitate the evacuation.
Much to its surprise, the Kirk, with but one tiny helipad, became the destination for a series of small helicopters carrying Vietnamese refugees. Because the landing space was so small, each chopper was literally pushed into the sea once it was emptied so the next one could land. It's a story that sounds fantastical, except that Kennedy has tracked down footage shot by a crew member at the time and has interviewed a Vietnamese who as a child had to jump out of another chopper that was too big to land.
These stranger-than-fiction tales, piled one on top of the other in the most gripping way, not only mesmerize us, they also point up another of "Last Days in Vietnam's" provocative points, that the chaos surrounding the evacuation was, in effect, the entire war in microcosm. As Herrington says, "Promises made in good faith and promises broken." And this remarkable film ensures that what happened won't be forgotten.
'Last Days in Vietnam'
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles.