Last Days in Vietnam: Sundance Review

Last Days in Vietnam - H - 2014
A virtually untold chapter of American history still poignantly resonates nearly four decades later.

Rory Kennedy re-examines the notorious fall of Saigon in this discerning new documentary.

For many American supporters of the war in Vietnam, the symbolic defeat embodied in the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and subsequent cease-fire were not the worst blows to their hopes for a productive resolution to the Vietnam War. Far worse was the disorderly and ignominious evacuation of Saigon as it fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, documented for the historical record by the world’s news media.

Surprisingly long after that fateful chapter of American history was written, Sundance vet Rory Kennedy returns to re-examine the circumstances behind the fall of Saigon in a new documentary for American Experience, PBS’ flagship history series. Observant, incisive, and at times both heartrending and inspiring, the film offers the potential for further reconciliation almost 40 years after America’s final retreat and will likely be replayed frequently on broadcast and digital channels.

Although the Nixon administration’s 1973 cease-fire treaty with North Vietnam paved the way for the withdrawal of American combat forces from the south, there were still thousands of U.S. military operatives, diplomats and government contractors in the country in 1975. Quite a few American men had essentially resettled in South Vietnam; some had married local women and started families. After a disgraced Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 following the Watergate scandal, the North Vietnamese began an aggressive offensive pushing south, which their counterparts were unable to repel without American combat support. As Northern troops progressed inexorably toward Saigon, American officials began to consider their options to safeguard the remaining in-country government personnel and civilians. In Washington, President Gerald Ford implored Congress to appropriate funds to relocate Americans and as many as 200,000 key South Vietnamese collaborators and their families, but U.S. politicians declined to approve the bill.

For his part, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Graham Martin refused to contemplate an official evacuation, even as the potential refugee population massing in Saigon grew to almost a million. As a result, various American government personnel began organizing informal, clandestine operations to transfer South Vietnamese residents overseas, many of them representatives of the South’s government and military, even as they acknowledged that violating U.S. orders could result in charges of treason.

Among these little-recognized acts of courage, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and other officers helped smuggle refugees on military trucks to the U.S. airbase outside Saigon and transfer them to cargo transports, which flew them to the Philippines. The State Department’s Joseph McBride shuttled an embassy van around the city, picking up key collaborators and dropping them at the Saigon River docks to board ships departing the country. “There was chaos in Saigon at that time,” recalls South Vietnamese naval officer Dam Pham.

Meanwhile, Washington dispatched Pentagon official and Vietnam vet Richard Armitage to help prevent U.S.-issued naval ships from falling into enemy hands. Together with Navy Captain Kiem Do, Armitage coordinated the transport of approximately 30,000 refugees aboard the fleeing ships, even though the operation was entirely unsanctioned by the Pentagon. “Sometimes you must violate the rules and follow your heart,” observes Do in retrospect.

Vietnamese without sufficient rank or adequate connections to find a way out massed outside the embassy in the interim. After weeks of delay, Ambassador Martin finally ordered an all-out evacuation. With 2,000 Vietnamese huddled on the embassy grounds and most other options cut off, the only remaining choice was a helicopter airlift, with only 24 hours to complete the operation. From U.S. carriers cruising off the coast, 75 Marine helicopters ferried evacuees from the embassy for more than 18 hours in nonstop rotations. When the penultimate flight lifted off with Martin aboard, less than a dozen of the embassy’s Marine guards were left behind to shut the building’s doors on hundreds of South Vietnamese still hoping for deliverance.

Despite these astounding accomplishments, tens of thousands of U.S. collaborators didn’t have the chance to escape and many were later detained or executed for supporting U.S. forces. Those lacking the influence or resources to evacuate knew that their luckier or better-connected counterparts were being whisked to safety overseas while they were left behind to face persecution by the Communist regime. South Vietnamese college student Binh Pho and naval officer Pham were both among those incarcerated in Communist “re-education” camps, although they eventually made their way to the U.S. “It was so serious and deep a betrayal,” Herrington remarks about the final withdrawal that effectively abandoned his Vietnamese comrades.

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Even with a wealth of archival material to consider, Kennedy digs much deeper to tell this dramatic story. Remarkable photos and footage shot aboard the destroyer USS Kirk as the crew cleared its decks to receive dozens of helicopters flown by South Vietnamese pilots transporting refugees, then pushed the choppers overboard to make room for incoming flights, is astounding in it its immediacy. The nighttime bombing of the U.S. airbase outside Saigon, rendered in grainy color images of exploding ordnance and equipment, drives home the desperation that escapees were facing in the final hours before the fall of the city.

Kennedy’s selection of interview subjects is equally impressive and incisive, including many of the surviving key embassy personnel and their South Vietnamese counterparts. News clips and personal archival materials round out the editorial package, well structured by screenwriters Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester, and masterfully assembled by Don Kleszy.

For a period of American history that’s been re-examined and critiqued with barely a pause since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Kennedy’s resourcefulness in obtaining fresh materials and strikingly frank interviews stands as a singularly affecting accomplishment.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres (American Experience Films)
Production company: Moxie Firecracker Films
Director: Rory Kennedy
Screenwriters: Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester
Producers: Keven McAlester, Rory Kennedy, Sharon Grimberg
Executive Producer: Mark Samels
Director of photography: Joan Churchill
Music: Gary Lionelli
Editor: Don Kleszy
No rating, 98 minutes