Director Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” is absolutely a must-watch documentary/ film of the year. The film captures the chaotic final days of the Vietnam war.
Extreme disillusionment with the war, huge number of American fatalities and the anti-Vietnam war movement grown out of the counterculture of the 1960s, has been well documented in the history books. Almost 60,000 US service members died in the conflict. What is less well documented thus far however, is the toll that the war took on others. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese service members and civilians killed range from 80,000 to 3.1M. Additionally, 200,000 to 300,000 Cambodians and 20,000 to 200,000 Laotians are presumed to have died in the conflict. While America was wrapped up in the jubilation of the troops coming home, when the end of war was announced, a different reality was unfolding in Vietnam.
Unplanned, abrupt, and chaotic withdrawal of the American troops was poised to about to create a tragedy of epic proportion, for the location population in South Vietnam. North and South Vietnam were expected to remain separate states, while the US was withdrawing under the banner of “peace with honor”. As observed by an interviewee, the agreement was however, a “masterpiece of ambiguity” and North Vietnam was not poised to be honor bound. By spring of 1975, during the final days of the American withdrawal, North Vietnamese troops were pouring into the South. Nixon had resigned and Ford Government as begging Congress for resources that were unlikely to come. Panicstricken South Vietnamese people were making desperate attempts to escape, while the American soldiers and diplomats were encountering a moral dilemma: whether to obey the orders to evacuate US citizens only or risk treason and attempt to save the lives of Vietnamese people and how many can be saved with time running out. As observed by an interviewee, the South Vietnamese were like “dead men walking and sometimes, there is an issue of not legal or illegal but right or wrong”.
Ambassador Graham Martin refused to believe at first, that disaster was imminent. Amidst the chaos, when one would assume that each individual would be looking out for themselves, eventually a group of heroes emerged, including the Ambassador, who refused to give up on their South Vietnamese friends. The locals also became fiercely determined to escape. First, the escapees were put on cargo planes. When the airport was being bombarded, they began to escape by crowding on small helicopters and heading out to sea, to land on a flotilla of American ships. Creative solutions and improvisation were called for in a race to save lives. The US sailors began to unload the passengers from the choppers and then began pushing the choppers overboard, to save the space for the people. One destroyer received 17 helicopter loads of refugees, pushing all the choppers overboard. And yet other escapees stormed into the US Embassy, with some papers, demanding entrance. When 24 hours remained to pull out, Ambassador Graham refused to leave and supervised the initial phase of the evacuation of the escapees through choppers taking off from the rooftop of the embassy. Eventually, some promises were honored and some put trust, humanity, and human lives in peril.
Kennedy has created a masterpiece from disjointed accounts, newspaper clippings, news over the radio, eyewitness accounts, heroic tales, footage shot at the time, and from hundreds of thousands of pictures, each one truly worth a thousand words. The film captures an infinitely sad reality of the war; not just during the war, but when the war is over; in its aftermath, many continue to suffer for long periods of time. More importantly, the film also captures the heart-wrenching and also heart-warming reality of indomitable human spirit that refuses to cave in and a small group of people who emerge to do the right thing; and in the process, make a huge difference, in how the story would be told. According to the film, in the end, about 130,000 people escaped. On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being excellent, I rate the film 5. It is truly a must watch masterpiece.