We watched the Vietnam war play out on television and the subsequent war narratives built by the media and politicians over the past few decades. So many films have been made about “America’s great failure,” which eventually transformed into the story of how badly the war destroyed the lives of soldiers coming home, not to mention the wreckage inflicted on Vietnam. And yet, most of us still see that war as a series of bad decisions by bad presidents — the one war America never wanted to repeat. Now, here we are in the last days of Iraq, unable to pull out, our mission having failed spectacularly – Rory Kennedy’s film about the end of Vietnam is a glaring reminder that not only has it happened before but it’s likely to happen again.
Using extraordinary, rare archival footage, Kennedy focuses her documentary on how the war ended, how America left Vietnam and how desperately those who counted on America to win that war needed to escape when we lost. Refugees piled onto freighters in the middle of the ocean. Mothers and their babies jammed into helicopters and dropped onto ships – all in hopes of starting a new life in the United States. The story here is not only about the brave refugees but about the American heroes who have mostly gone unrecognized in the years since.
By the time South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam it was all over but the shouting. The United States could not rescue any more refugees. Many of them were sent to re-education camps, or killed. What is so remarkable about the film is that it plays like a suspense thriller. Kennedy features many witnesses to those events but it never feels like talking heads because there is so much real footage of events urgently unfolding it sometimes feels like you’re watching a narrative rather than a documentary.
One never feels lost or confused about what was going on, which is a testament to Kennedy’s skill in assembling all the material. One of the reasons most Americans don’t think much about Vietnam is that so conflicting spins have confused the issues about who or what we were fighting for and why it was considered such a failure. This film more than any other lays it out plainly, and profoundly.
Hollywood has taken us into Vietnam many times before – from Coming Home to Apocalypse Now to Platoon to Born on the 4th of July. We know this war through movies. We know it through movies about presidents. We know it because it is entangled in the Kennedy assassination by conspiracy theorists who believe Kennedy was going to stop the war, which was, according to Oliver Stone, one of the reasons he was killed. But no one can say what Kennedy would have done or how the war would have ultimately played out. Last Days of Vietnam is not really about who was right or how badly Nixon escalated the bombings — it is about heroes who risked life and limb to get Vietnamese refugees out of a collapsing country.
Kennedy has a firm grasp of structure and story, leaving some of the film’s most shattering moments to occur near the end. It is a film that does what all stories about Vietnam should do – shame those who made the big decisions that ended hundreds of thousands of lives while honoring those who gave their lives for our country and for a cause they felt at the time was worth fighting for.
If it all sounds familiar that’s because Last Days of Vietnam eerily echoes what’s going on in Iraq right now. How we view those events, what we choose to pay attention to or ignore will ultimately define this history we’re living through. What little was filtered through the media back in the 70s is nothing like how little gets through to people now. The problem with 2014 is that so many people have become numbed and apathetic. At least in the 1970s some were still involved and motivated enough to protest the war in large numbers.
America’s involvement with Vietnam was long and deep. Whole families were built there and brought back here. Watching Kennedy’s film one can’t help but marvel at how little anyone thinks about or cares about Communism now, sold to us as the greatest threat to American life back then. It has faded so dramatically into the rearview the word itself feels like a relic. But Kennedy’s film serves a living memorial to how irrational fear and defense of an empire in the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing can lead to monumental tragedy.
Last Days of Vietnam ends up as a story about bravery more than anything else. In those last days the people who were willing to stick it out to help those left behind reveal the best humanity has to offer in war time. This is a film every American, as citizens of this empire, this democracy must see.
Last Days of Vietnam is one of the best films of 2014.