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Last Days in Vietnam - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Last Days in Vietnam
Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

It's been nearly forty years since the U.S. left Vietnam, and in the past thirty-odd years, countless movies, both feature films and documentaries, have been made about the conflict -- perhaps because our country remains understandably conflicted about our history there. What virtually none of those stories told, however, was specifically about the U.S. presence, and then evacuation, of the city during the fall of Saigon. Last Days in Vietnam, an absorbing documentary by director Rory Kennedy, fills a void we didn't even know was there.

This is rather pointedly a film about American heroism, particularly in the face of shortsighted bureaucracy and inept leadership -- also American. This, unfortunately, leaves a lot of a vital story untold, even the ending of it. There is much here about the number of South Vietnamese rescued by Americans as the North Vietnamese advanced, and little more than an ending title card about the exponentially larger number that had to be left behind. This is, admittedly, simply how we cope with otherwise hopeless situations: we tell the stories of the heroes.

One of the talking heads in this film mentions that the last day of U.S. presence in Saigon was a microcosm of the whole of the Vietnam war -- the successes and the devastating mistakes. This may be a rare case, in fact, where a film has more impact than a book about it might have had, just by virtue of the stunning footage recovered.

South Vietnamese, desperate to get rescued, flooded the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, numbering in the thousands. The military had four options for evacuation, which Ambassador Graham Martin, who is revealed here to be shortsighted in the extreme, refused even to plan for -- until, of course, it was so late in the game that the "last resort" option was the only option available: air lifting people out with helicopters. The North Vietnames bombed the airport they had been using, so flying people out on airplanes was out. There was at least one military officer who snuck out and took several van fulls of people to the river to load people on overcrowded boats, which themselves ultimately overcrowded the seas nearby.

This is a pretty stunning story of slow-building panic and chaos. Helicopters took people from the Embassy to ships only large enough to land one aircraft at a time. In short order, the ship was approached by South Vietnames army helicopters, piloted by officers taking matters into their own hands. These helicopters would land, its occupants deboarded, and in order to make room for the next helicopter, the ship's crew literally pushed the helicopters over the side and into the water. In one case, a helicopter far too large even to land hovered close by to literally drop a family into the arms of crew on deck, and then the pilot crashed the aircraft into the water and jumped out as it sank. There is incredible footage of all of this, made even more amazing by how long this was before we all had pocket-sized cameras in our hands.

Last Days in Vietnam tells a sad, sad story, but one absolutely worth seeing. It reveals the tragedy of American involvement to the end: the final helicopter leaving the Embassy with over four hundred South Vietnamese still left behind, who had all just been promised they would be rescued. The only thing shocking about the looting of the Embassy that followed was that it wasn't more violent. The film never touches on current relations with Vietnam, but considering how recent and how divisive this conflict was, one can't help but marvel at the expansion of diplomatic relations in the past twenty years. There are still plenty of people alive today who were involved at the time, several of them interviewed for this film.

This movie, of course, leaves a lot of the story of Vietnam untouched, even when zeroing in on that last day, in that last location of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). But it shines a spotlight on the last nail in the coffin of U.S. betrayal, as a beleaguered Congress refused to offer the President any aide to a Saigon reduced to rationing artillery. On the other hand, we see footage of a woman at the time making a very astute point: if throwing multiple billions at the conflict could not solve the problem, what difference was authorizing the $722 million President Ford was asking going to make? Sometimes, there just are no solutions -- the world burns, and all you can do is watch. Or get what few people you can out of the fire in helicopters.

The fall of Saigon is vividly captured in LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM.

Overall: B+
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