The Skinny (No Spoilers)
When I was in high school, my U.S. history professor said that the biggest mistake that teachers make is to not teach past World War II. Whether it is from spending too much time on the Civil War or on the outsized personalities of revolutionary presidents, most professors run out of time at the end of the year and are only able to get us to 1945. As a result, we have kids that know what happened at the constitutional convention, but don’t know about those events that still directly impact their contemporary worlds: What caused the first Gulf War? What is the Civil Right Acts? What the hell happened during the Vietnam War?
Last Days in Vietnam is a damn good documentary on the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975. The famous picture of people scurrying to the roof to board a helicopter has been burned into a generation of American memories, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of the wars futility (even though the roof shown is not actually that of the embassy). Directed by Rory Kennedy, who won an Emmy for the documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Last Days of Vietnam uses interviews from former embassy workers and soldiers, American and Vietnamese, to paint of rich narrative of those chaotic days. Running a quick 98 minutes, Last Days in Vietnam moves quick as a bunny, while still giving the viewer the necessary context. This is a must watch for those within Generation Y, since it is highly unlikely they have read, or heard, much about these April events.
The Deep Dive (Spoilers)
Soon after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the Viet Cong started the long march from North Vietnam to the South Vietnam capitol of Saigon. Due to congressional restrictions on the amount of aid the South Vietnamese could receive from the U.S., South Vietnam was forced to confront the invasion on its own. Unable to stop the tide, the North Vietnamese made huge gains quickly, which caused the eventual (and slow) evacuation of almost all Americans from the country. Last Days in Vietnam tells the story of this haphazard effort to save not only America personnel, but also thousands of South Vietnamese that assisted the Americans during the war. Once the North Vietnamese took over the south, imprisonment, torture, and death were surefire fates for those that assisted the U.S. For this reason, getting the hell out of dodge was of the highest priority.
Using graphics, old news clips, and interviews with both notable figures from the time (i.e. Henry Kissinger, Richard Armitage, etc.), and ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation, the viewer is given a front row seat to what must have felt like an impossible situation. The pacing is wonderful. Too often documentaries of this type are dry, emotionless affairs that put to sleep as well as inform. No such concern here. It quickly lays out the context for the invasion, then, by quickly shifting between separate settings within the conflict, has the feeling of a boulder rolling down hill and picking up speed. The urgency to escape is palpable, with Vietnam connecting the audiences emotionally to the South Vietnamese’s yearn for salvation.
It is not perfect. The climax is somewhat underwhelming. Detailing more of what happened after the North Vietnamese finalized the invasion would have paid off the “raising of the stakes” that the previous 90 minutes of film accomplished. This fact should not be a deciding factor in whether you should see the movie, just a casual observation.
All in all, great documentary. It should be playing at your local independent movie house. What occurred in Southeast Asia in the 1960’s and 70’s still haunts U.S. foreign policy to this day. Is it imperative that the younger generations understand what has occurred, so that future incidents of this nature can be avoided.