Last Days in Vietnam is formally standard, abiding by every historical doc rule in the book. Interviews, old footage and photographs and occasional digital recreations all come exactly how and when one would expect them to. The Ken Burns effect is in plentiful use. Based off of this, one would think that the film would be nothing more than a perfectly acceptable piece of work, fated to be used in classrooms for years to come (which would be appropriate, since it is a production of American Experience).
But this documentary transcends its basic setup through the sheer strength of a great story that’s told well. While the War in Vietnam is a subject that’s been well-trodden in nonfiction film, this particular chapter of the conflict has gone comparatively ignored. The most anyone probably remembers about the Fall of Saigon is that famous image of people swarming a helicopter as it’s taking off from the roof of 22 Gia Long Street. But there was more to these events. So much more.
The film charts the efforts of U.S. service members stationed in Saigon at the end of the war as they tried to evacuate as many South Vietnamese collaborators as possible. There were nearly two hundred thousand people in the city with ample reason to avoid the Communists. Anyone who helped the Americans in even the smallest way, like a tailor, faced execution. And that’s to say nothing of the South Vietnamese military officers, the Vietnamese wives and girlfriends of Americans and all of these people’s extended families.
After a long prelude about the breaking of the Paris Peace Accords and the shoddy preparations in Saigon as the North Vietnamese army drew near, the film launches into April 29th, when the evacuation order was finally given. I have never seen chaos and urgency so perfectly captured with nothing but historical documents. The film, directed by Rory Kennedy, does not skimp on production value — a full orchestra plays the score, and an elaborate sound mix helps the old videos come alive.
Any one of the episodes related in this doc could be adapted as its own feature-length Hollywood production. Certain American officers built their own secret system for funneling out their Vietnamese friends. U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, despite spending a long time in denial over the impending invasion, demonstrated remarkable force of will when push came to shove. The man stood in Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport while it was being bombarded. To say nothing of the Vietnamese who took matters into their own hands, such as the numerous pilots who just stole helicopters and used them to fly their families to ships. One such incident has to be witnessed to be believed, and it is one of the single most badass things I have ever heard of.
In fact, the film’s relationship with the Vietnamese people is where it stumbles. Out of a cast of several dozen interviewees, there are only four Vietnamese featured. I doubt that it was too difficult to track down more of them, given that the filmmakers snagged Henry Kissinger to lend his perspective. It leaves a noticeable gap in the film’s worldview, and shifts it just a little bit towards an unfortunate white savior narrative.
Regardless, Last Days in Vietnam was an incredibly pleasant surprise. It is a prime example of how documentaries can illuminate our shared memory’s gaps, and how nonfiction can frequently outdo the best thrills Hollywood has to offer.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2014.