While I lived through the final gasps of the Vietnam War, I was way too young to recall any of it. This war hangs over our country’s history like a rain cloud and it’s rare that we ever hear of much in the way of good that came from it. Enter Rory Kennedy‘s superb documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, which tells the story of the not-so-secret operation to remove as many of the South Vietnamese who helped the U.S. during the war with the Viet Cong and the communists from the North. This is a tale that has seemingly gone untold in the near 40 years since the end of the war. As our troops that have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally being returned home, the time seems perfectly ripe for a film like this one.
What unfolds in Kennedy‘s tale is something akin to a thriller, filled with suspense despite the fact that I knew what actually happened. This is a testament to how well done this film is. Even though American troops had been withdrawn since the signing of the Paris Accords on January 27, 1973, there were still some troops left to protect the embassy and other American personnel left in Saigon. As it became more and more apparent that the Viet Cong were breaking through, the troops still left behind were awaiting orders for evacuation. Ambassador Graham Martin, a man who had great confidence in the South Vietnamese, balked at evacuation thinking that the situation would get better. Also, with Congress unable (or unwilling, really) to pass a resolution to account for evacuation of friendly South Vietnamese citizens, people began to panic and were forced to create their own “black op” to get as many of these people out as possible. There were an estimated 150,000-200,000 people that faced certain death for the collaboration with the Americans and were, as one soldier in the film said, “dead men walking.” Word was spread to be ready to many Vietnamese individuals as they waited for the signal to commence the evacuation. A radio announcement stating “It’s 105 degrees and rising” followed by the playing of Bing Crosby‘s “White Christmas.” As the Viet Cong surged towards Saigon, this signal came on April 29, 1975.
What transpired after this is nothing short of amazing. “That morning, fear and desperation were the order of the day.” Despite it being against the Paris Accords to evacuate any South Vietnamese army or people, the U.S. surreptitiously set in motion a non-stop series of helicopters dispatched to the embassy to remove the remaining Americans and thousands of Vietnamese people of interest that had gathered there. Over the next 24-48 hours, hundreds of helicopters removed these people to nearby warships. So many helicopters were landing that there wasn’t enough room, so the troops aboard the ships had to push helicopters into the ocean to make room for more to land. The tremendous amount of courage that it took to make this happen is incalculable. Pilots flew 24+ hours in a row without stopping, flying over and through approaching enemy troops without official authorization from the U.S. government to do any of it. Selfless soldiers were nearly left behind so that more Vietnamese people could be evacuated, and even though they were unable to get all out that they wanted or hoped, the lives saved were innumerable.
Kennedy‘s structure for the film may be its greatest triumph. While she used archival footage perfectly, it is her intercutting of the actual historical footage with stories from primary source accounts from both the U.S. soldiers and some of the Vietnamese people who were either evacuated or left behind, that really made this film a triumph. The film could easily have been a standard boring, narrated film about the evacuation, and I’m so glad that it wasn’t. Without the testimony of the people involved, the film would have lacked so much emotional punch and would not have been anywhere near as impactful. And frankly, the tension and suspense is driven by these accounts and how they were edited. This is a film that should be shown alongside any teaching of the Vietnam War as it shows a human element in this war about which is all too often forgotten.
So that wraps up my coverage of the 2014 Indy Film Fest. I was able to see three really incredible films and one stinker. As I stated before, those are the chances you take when blindly going to a film festival. It’s also one of the many reasons to go. Getting to see films that you might not otherwise ever see is really fun and exciting. I look forward to next year’s fest and hope to take in more films.