The saga of ruin and futility is painful enough for Americans to remember. The finale is even more humiliating, and that explains the sometimes tiptoe approach documentary maker Rory Kennedy (RFK’s daughter) takes in Last Days in Vietnam.
The primarily American interviewees here include the ever-exculpatory Henry Kissinger, secretary of state during the end of the war in 1975, former CIA agent Frank Snepp (the sharpest character among these analysts) and Juan Valdez and Mike Sullivan, two of the last 11 Marines airlifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Kennedy also found several officers from the USS Kirk—the vessel whose sailors deep-sixed the empty Huey helicopters into the South China Sea, in famous news photos.
The first half, in shadowy libraryish lighting, is a bit too laden with talking heads for the large screen. Stick with it, because the later story of the evacuation of Saigon is far more thrilling, and saddening. The one who isn’t there to defend his actions gets the most blame: Ambassador Graham Martin’s deliberate unwillingness to see what was coming was fatal for an untold number of our South Vietnamese allies. Martin’s hesitation meant that the U.S. had to use the worst option for removing tens of thousands of refugees—a short-notice, all-night airlift by slow, small helicopters—a military operation that was like draining a pond with a teaspoon.
Warm stories of courage enliven the second half of Last Days, amid the surreal incidents of the implosion of the Embassy (we learn it took two Marines eight hours to burn one million dollars in U.S. currency). Stay for Miki Nguyen’s incredible account of the escape of his entire family, thanks to his nerveless pilot father and a borrowed Chinook helicopter.
The finale is comfortless, with footage of ARVN soldiers leaving their boots and uniforms and melting into the crowd. But the savage vindictiveness of the victorious forces were everything that the commie haters dreamed of, and more.
Last Days in Vietnam opens Oct 3 at the Rialto Cinemas, 6869 McKinley St, Sebastopol. 707.539.5771.