The New York Times September 4, 2014
Perhaps the most striking thing about “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s eye-opening documentary about the 1975 evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon, is how calmly it surveys what was once among the angriest topics in American political life. The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage. Ms. Kennedy, whose uncle John F. Kennedy expanded American involvement in Vietnam and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, became one of the ensuing war’s most passionate critics, explores its final episode with an open mind and lively curiosity. There are old clips that have never been widely seen and pieces of information that may surprise many viewers.
Pictures, moving and still, have always been part of the American collective memory of Vietnam. The fall of Saigon conjures up the image of a helicopter on a rooftop as desperate people try to climb aboard. One thing I learned from “Last Days in Vietnam” is that it was not the roof of the embassy, as is sometimes assumed, but of the building where the C.I.A. station chief lived, in another part of the city. What happened at the embassy — and in the waters off the coast of Saigon — was desperate and dramatic and much more complicated.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had provisionally maintained the partition of Vietnam into North and South. As soon as the American forces were gone, the Communist North began to unify the country by force, sweeping quickly through Da Nang and other Southern cities and closing in on Saigon by April of 1975. For tangled reasons that Ms. Kennedy and her interview sources manage to clarify impressively, plans for evacuation were delayed until the 11th hour. Thousands of Vietnamese who had loyally served the American cause and the South Vietnamese government were in imminent danger, and “Last Days in Vietnam” is largely a chronicle of efforts to get them and their families out.
The narrators are an assortment of American and Vietnamese men who witnessed the events firsthand, and whose accounts are deftly woven into a conciseand gripping film. Some are well known, like Henry A. Kissinger, the secretary of state and national security adviser at the time, and Richard L. Armitage, who went on to serve in the State Department in the administration of George W. Bush. At the time, he was a naval officer, and he remains a natural-born storyteller with a gruff sense of humor and a vivid sense of detail. Hour-by-hour accounts of the airlifts that brought thousands of people from the embassy to American ships are provided by embassy guards, journalists and military personnel. We hear from residents of Saigon who made it out, and also from some who didn’t.
The central figure in the drama is the American ambassador, Graham Martin, who died in 1990 and could not be interviewed for “Last Days in Vietnam.” That is unfortunate, but the portrait that emerges from archival news footage and the memories of others is fascinating in its ambiguity. As the North Vietnamese armies routed the Southern forces, he refused to plan an exit strategy, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence that South Vietnam would survive.
This almost delusional stubbornness — which Ms. Kennedy’s interviewees still marvel at 40 years later — revealed another side as the Communist capture of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) drew near. Defying prudent advice and at some risk to his own safety, Ambassador Martin delayed his own departure from the embassy for as long as he could, so that as many Vietnamese as possible could escape.
Not that this is a story with a happy ending. What followed was brutality and repression on the part of the victors, and a refugee crisis among their victims. Now that so much time has passed, and relations between the United States and Vietnam have normalized, it might have been good to hear a voice or two from the other side, to learn what was going through the minds of the soldiers entering Saigon as the Americans left. But this omission does not diminish what Ms. Kennedy has accomplished, which is fairly and compassionately to reconstruct a messy episode in history.
Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy; written by Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester; director of photography, Joan Churchill; edited by Don Kleszy; music by Gary Lionelli; produced by Ms. Kennedy and Mr. McAlester; released by American Experience Films/PBS. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is not rated.