You know things aren’t going well, an old Southern folk saying goes, when you’re pushing helicopters off the edge of a boat.
Well, maybe that’s not an American Gothic aphorism – but it should be. When it happens, not once, not twice, but thrice on celluloid just about halfway through Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, it perfectly encapsulates the monumental SNAFU that the bluntly-named film documents – and perhaps the greater conflict those last days capped off. The failure of American authorities to reckon with, and respond adequately to, events in that fateful spring may not have been Vietnam in miniature, exactly, but they were awful close.
After over three decades of continuous brutal war – and by some reckonings over a century of more-or-less constant violence – a peace treaty was signed in Paris between the United States and the two Vietnams in January 1973. Nixon’s approval ratings shot up, Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize, and our boys started coming home. Yet there was no peace, and without American support, the South Vietnamese state quickly imploded under the weight of a rapid, massive invasion from the north in Spring 1975.
This implosion and the imminent subsumption of South Vietnam into what would soon become simply Vietnam was obvious to basically everybody with eyes to see. That did not include, however, an exhausted anti-war Congress unwilling to send another penny or drop of blood to Vietnam. It also didn’t include US Ambassador Graham Martin, whose obstinate nature delayed both the planning and execution of a full-scale evacuation of Americans and allied Vietnamese, suddenly at risk of Communist persecution under the encroaching regime, until the major air base was bombed into rubble. Oops.
Last Days in Vietnam is mostly about the events that followed, in equal measure astounding and tragic. American military personnel go to amazing lengths to save as many Vietnamese people as they can – as to the Vietnamese themselves, including commandeering helicopters in a desperate attempt to find their way onto the safety of the American fleet. This is what leads to the remarkable footage – with every person aboard the unexpected helicopter a refugee, who is there to fly it away? And as more helicopters keep coming with more people in need of help…
This is not a revolutionary documentary – it sticks closely to established conventions, weaving contemporary interviews with still-living participants in the events to narrate footage from those events. What makes the documentary work so well is the lively honesty of the interviewees, both American and Vietnamese, who openly grapple with the moral ambiguity of their moment while also justifying extra-legal heroism with a simple ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It also works because the footage from the moment is kind of amazing, a coda to Vietnam’s infamy as the moment war reached American televisions, as almost every moment described by the interviewees is on film somehow. This especially helps with the anecdotes that, while secondary to the narrative, explicate the chaos and mood of the moment, like the cutting down of a tree, streets full of boots, or the burning of a million dollars in cold hard cash. They take on a profound power when you can really see it.
Last Days in Vietnam does do a few things exceptionally right – like using computer generated models to quickly and clearly frame key geographies – but it is definitely not perfect. Gary Lionelli’s score is straight out of a NatGeo dramatic reenactment and never stops, ever, for any reason, at its best ignorable and at its worst uncomfortable emotional dictation. Another issue is the framing – the film does a pretty good job framing 1973-1975, but if you don’t actually know very much about the Vietnam War to begin with – and fewer and fewer Americans do – you may feel a little lost. Most troubling, though, is the film’s relentlessly narrow focus on its subject matter, which in its less carefully-handled moments has the implicit effect not of explicating the complexity and ambiguity of what happened in Vietnam and why, but instead collapsing it into a simple morality tale. The film’s final moments (and a few others as well) risk making this implicit effect explicit.
These failings, though, are far from fatal, and in the final analysis detract little from the film’s value and power of a document (that’s why we call them ‘documentaries,’ folks) of a unique and incredible moment in American history, a moment when so much of what was plaguing our political and institutional life converged in a single city in a few days of chaos, heroism, and tragedy. It might not be terribly original to put forward this particular FUBAR as a microcosm of the grand national FUBAR it punctuated, but when you see it with your own eyes the notion is hard to dispel.