October 16 — October 23
Last Days In Vietnam
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
By now, we may think we know all about the Vietnam War—the significant battles, the demoralizing failures, the effect of prolonged jungle warfare on the psyches of American soldiers, the social protests at home, the confusion over who our enemy was and what we were fighting for—most of this has been covered in documentary and fictional narratives. We’ve seen the Vietnam War portrayed as nightmare, horror show, psychological drama about courage and honor, social and political indictment, and surreal circus of the absurd, a true-life embodiment of the bureaucratic insanity depicted in Joseph Heller’s classic antiwar novel Catch-22. But what we haven’t learned as much about, and what filmmaker Rory Kennedy focuses on here, is what happens when war is ostensibly over: who gets out and who stays behind? When the last American troops were brought home, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had its opportunity to launch one final assault against the South Vietnamese Army—i.e., the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)—which was vulnerable without American military support. The final evacuation of Americans and their dependents—Vietnamese-born girlfriends, wives, children—was in the spring of 1975. Even though the war was “over,” this evacuation was just as horrific and devastating as anything civilians had been exposed to during the height of the conflict. Kennedy provides compelling archival footage and interviews first with American military and intelligence personnel who were there, then Vietnamese soldiers and civilians whose lives depended upon whether or not they could get on one of the helicopters or boats leaving the country. Those left behind—and they numbered in the tens of thousands—were executed or sentenced to “re-education camps.” The 1984 film The Killing Fields has probably come closest to touching upon the terror and uncertainty during the fall of Saigon—based on a true story, the movie followed the ordeal of journalist/interpreter Dith Pran (played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar) when he fails to get out of Cambodia, is captured by the Khmer Rouge and put into a forced labor camp, where he witnesses unspeakable atrocities (the “killing fields” are not a figurative phrase). Last Days in Vietnam details the efforts of thousands of Americans and their dependents to escape the fate that befell Dith Pran. We hear stories of incredible courage and sacrifice: waves of helicopters delivered refugees to the USS Kirk and were immediately pushed into the ocean to make way for the next chopper on the small landing pad; one helicopter was too big to touch down, so passengers jumped onto the pad and the pilot did a controlled crash into the sea, leaping out himself before impact. These are astonishing stories—more so because we likely haven’t heard them before. After all, the war was over. But Kennedy and her documentary crew know that wars don’t just “stop” on a dime like that—there’s always “mopping up” to do, refugees to save, civilians who need to relocate, damage to fix. This is a particularly pertinent lesson to remember as we contemplate American exit strategies from current hot spots in the Middle East and Afghanistan. What happens to the allies who don’t make it out? What does the United States “owe” to the rebels and civilian allies who assisted our military but don’t officially belong to us? (Especially when those military actions don’t end in complete and thorough victory). Without speaking directly about today’s American military presence overseas, Last Days of Vietnam provides much food for thought. What’s interesting about Kennedy’s film is that our ideas about certain key figures change: American ambassador Graham Martin, for instance, at first seems like a typically clueless bureaucrat whose slowness to prepare for evacuation—in order to keep people from “panicking”—makes him an easy target for criticism. But later, Martin’s refusal to abandon the embassy until everyone’s out indicates that he’s got more heroic qualities than we’d assumed. Like most crises, the evacuation of Saigon brought out the best and the worst of the people involved—sometimes the best and worst in the same people. Politics aside, Last Days of Vietnam is fascinating just as a psychological examination of people under pressure. And it’s just as interesting to see how some of the interviewees try to portray their actions decades after the fact, rewriting their own personal histories, so to speak. Kennedy’s enthralling film was originally made for the American Experience series on PBS, but its remarkable quality warranted a theatrical release in the hope that it will earn a (much-deserved) Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. It’s a genuine contender for that honor, a confidently crafted, non-didactic analysis of an underappreciated episode in American military (and civilian) history, and a searing human drama. Many survivors of the final days of Saigon made practically superhuman efforts to save as many civilians as possible, but they still carry guilt over the ones they couldn’t save. Others talk about how they felt abandoned by the United States, left to their own resources to escape with their lives or save others. Even so many years later, the wounds are raw. The risks they took and the obstacles they overcame just to tell their stories remind us of the thousands who weren’t so lucky. It’s sobering, powerful stuff—and again, it reminds us that wars are never completely “over” just because governments declare peace (with honor). In fact, there’s enough residual heartbreak and bitterness to make Last Days of Vietnam a belated antiwar statement—but that’s not what Kennedy is aiming for. Her purpose is simply to show that the Vietnam War (and by extension, all wars) are even messier than we assume—that “win” or “lose,” the real victory for the survivors is just that—to survive. The film doesn’t explicitly go into details about why the evacuation efforts were so poorly-handled, but viewers learn enough to make up their own minds. Anyway, failures of political policy aren’t Kennedy’s concern: her interest is in how human beings—not faceless armies or government agencies or nations—behave in situations like this. It makes for much more compelling viewing, and even as moviegoers get frustrated about why the evacuation occurred as it did, we can appreciate the individual heroism of many people actually involved—including people who knew it was better to “beg for forgiveness rather than wait for permission” when given the choice to do what was right versus what the rulebook told them to do. Bureaucracies screw up, Kennedy’s film tells us, but people frequently come through in the clutch.
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