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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: Last Days in Vietnam

The Paris Peace Accords were meant to end the Vietnam War.  They did, in a way, giving the United States an out in an unpopular war.  What it ended up actually doing was creating something of a mess, withdrawing US support from South Vietnam without putting firm restrictions to prevent hostilities from breaking out again.  And when they inevitably did, the US - by then under a new administration - merely hastened their retreat.  Last Days in Vietnam starts, roughly, with the Paris Peace Accords, but its real focus begins after North Vietnam troops breaking the cease fire and making a big push towards Saigon, which prompted the Americans remaining in the country to prepare for evacuation - and debate what to do with the Vietnamese sympathizers who had helped us, and would almost certainly be executed for doing so.

There are a handful of major focal points in the film.  One is the American political climate, with Congress reluctant to spend more money on a war the American people didn't want and even more reluctant to spend money evacuating American allies trapped in Vietnam.  One is the North Vietnamese invasion itself, which blew through the country in a matter of weeks.  By far the biggest, however, involves the evacuation of Saigon by American forces.  Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador in South Vietnam, refused to acknowledge how bad things were until the North Vietnamese had been shelling the airport outside of Saigon for an entire night, a decision that helped fuel the chaos that was the eventual evacuation.

Kennedy excels at finding the little stories buried in those final days.  Americans who could see what Martin could not - like Captain Stuart Harrington, one of the film's major talking heads - were forbidden from evacuating the Vietnamese, but began to organize 'black ops' to sneak sympathizers to safety before it was too late.  And once the evacuation itself begins, the story of the Americans attempting to keep the promises they made to the citizens of Saigon picks up a tragic intensity the film frequently tries to mitigate.

Unfortunately, Kennedy is perhaps a little too focused; Last Days in Vietnam concerns itself almost exclusively with the botched evacuation of the Americans remaining in the country, which is (of course) only a small part of the story.  Little time is spent on the remainder of the war; viewers are expected to understand the fundamentals of the conflict before frame one.  The protests against the war are only barely touched on, despite ostensibly being a major factor in America's decision to leave Saigon to fend for itself.  Even the Vietnamese experience is reduced to four men who have been living in America for years by now.  When it is revealed in the credits that one was trapped for years in a re-education camp before escaping to America, I was shocked; not once was that touched upon in the film itself, which ends the second American involvement in the country did.

Formally, Last Days in Vietnam lives in the shadow of Ken Burns.  The film's repertoire includes talking head interviews, some light digital recreation, and extensive archival photos and videos.  While Kennedy does little to liven up the formula, he's saved here largely by access to some truly amazing archival material.  Video of soldiers pushing helicopters into the water to make more room on their aircraft carriers for refugees, for example, is powerful, and it's neither the first memorable video Kennedy has dug up nor the last.  The presentation is dry, but much - not all, but much - of the material sings.

Last Days in Vietnam is a serviceable retelling of a largely untold and utterly fascinating story.  Rory Kennedy includes some stunning material and ties it to some wonderful stories.  It would make a fantastic book.  It is not, however, actually a book, and therein lies the problem.  Kennedy has an great hook, and this is essential viewing for anyone interested in American history or the Vietnam War, but Last Days in Vietnam is less than the sum of its parts.

Grade: B

For our Atlanta readers, Last Days in Vietnam will reach Landmark's Midtown Art Cinema on October 17th, 2014.  It premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and will be released slowly in American theaters through September and October.
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