LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM (2014)
Running Time: 98 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Rory Kennedy
Distributor: IFC Films
A bumper sticker that has made its presence felt on New York City cars features an American flag with the slogan, “These colors don’t run.” Would that this were true. Let’s forget about Iraq (I guess the slogan was printed some years ago) and look to the most humiliating escape the world’s strongest power had to make in a hurry, and that, of course, was from Vietnam. Rory Kennedy, who has made a stunning documentary of the event, was seven years old at the time that President Gerald Ford ordered a full-scale withdrawal of all U.S. forces and civilians in April 1975. The prolific resume of this youngest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleven children, includes such documentaries as GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB, about the scandal involving the behavior of U.S. guardians at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison’ and ETHEL, an insider’s view of the wife and later widow of Robert Kennedy. She was scheduled to marry on July 17, 1999 but postponed the event because of the death in an airplane crash of her cousin, John F. Kennedy, Jr.
LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM could be called her masterwork, a heartbreaking account of the total withdrawal of not only all remaining U.S. forces in Vietnam but the evacuation of South Vietnamese who were considered high risk; i.e. folks who could wind up executed or be put in brutal “re-education” prisons if captured, because they worked hand in hand with the Americans.
The documentary is so well put together that even people like me who object to monologues by talking heads could be riveted by every word from the many subjects who show up in the film—including Henry Kissinger (who could have used subtitles), U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington, Marine embassy guard Juan Valdez, South Vietnamese army captain Kiem Do, and Special Forces Adviser Richard Armitage. Of those with non-speaking parts, our Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, had a crucial role. This last individual was a tragic hero: a man who was so opposed to facing the inevitable loss of the country to the Communists that he delayed evacuations until the last minute, but who at the same time was like the captain who would not leave the ship until the last (or almost the last) South Vietnamese high-risk civilian was removed from danger.
Rory Kennedy had access to some remarkable archival footage, some miracles of photography, considering the imminent danger that faced both South Vietnamese and Americans during the crucial 24-hour period. The evacuation raised a moral conundrum. President Ford ordered the departure of Americans only, an edict that, if followed, would throw thousands of South Vietnamese under the bus, or, in this case, Viet Cong tanks. It was left to U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington to organize the rescue of as many of the local people as he could while Dept. of Defense official Richard Armitage negotiated with South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do to remove 30,000 refugees. The evacuation was compared to the Exodus, made famous by the 1960 movie, in which six hundred Jewish refugees are smuggled into Palestine. Yet Americans arranging the trips out of the country are left with guilt feelings as some 420 South Vietnamese are left behind, despite promises to take care of everyone.
Don Kleszy, who has done a magnificent job editing the harrowing documentary, is able to thread current interviews, including some with Vietnamese who had escaped in ’75 and who speak perfect English, with the vivid archival footage. A large, colorful map shows the progress of the North Vietnamese as they ignore the cease-fire signed two years earlier but who take advantage of Nixon’s ouster to proceed village by village to Saigon. By that time, public opinion had gone over to disgust with the long war, and Congress refused to authorize additional funds that could have provided for more choppers.
As ISIS continues its march toward creating Sharia law in Iraq and Syria, we wonder whether we have learned any lessons.
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