Film Review: THE LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, (2014)
Rory Kennedy, an award winning documentary film maker and daughter of Robert Kennedy has made a must see film about the final days of the US departure from Vietnam. It is so closely-observed using actual footage and interviews only with people who were involved at the time. It takes place two years after the peace treaty was signed by Richard Nixon, who is now out of power. The North Vietnames, perceiving a vacuum at the atop are advancing southward without much resistance. As they get ominously close to Saigon where thousands of American personnel are still stationed, the US Ambassador, whose son had been killed in combat was loathe to admit defeat and have his death be in vain. He was in denial about the imminent threat. He delays plans to evacuate until too late to do it in an orderly and effective way as the airfield has been destroyed by the North Vietnamese. At this point it would have been within the terms of the treaty for the US to intervene as the North had broken the terms. We see Gerald Ford beside himself trying to get congress to allocate funds for troops to help - to no avail. When Richard Armitage, is sent over to asses the situation he sees the how dire it is. As the navy ships are being sent out of the harbor to avoid being captured he devises ways to smuggle South Vietnamese loyalists onto the ships. This he does with no permission and risks his career. His thinking, rightfully was: “Act now, apologize later”. Thousands were saved by that action.
When Ambassador Martin finally sees the handwriting on the wall, the only way to save the Americans is to airlift them by helicopter to the aircraft carrier USS. Kirk. This is slow and inefficient as each helicopter can only carry 40 passengers and there were thousands inside the embassy. As overloaded helicopters ran back and forth the South Vietnamese fighters filled their chinookhelicopters with their families and landed them on the other Navy ships fleeing the harbor. They would dump everyone onto the ship and push the helicopters overboard s that the next ones could land. It was a stunning and chaotic episode of heroism by everyone. The Americans felt so strongly about their South Vietnam compatriots that they risked their own lives as long as possible. Ambassador Martin redeemed himself by being on the last helicopter to leave the embassy and those that were left behind were felt grievously by all those that left.
One of the things we have become accustomed to is insights into the mindsets which can take hold in “the fog of war”. It is a way of fathoming the unfathomable and justifying the forgiveness which is necessary to heal. But this is a different kind of picture. This is about actions of ordinary soldiers and officers acting on their conscience to do extraordinary things to save those with whom they had worked and learned to love and appreciate as equals. They were not willing to let them simply be “collateral damage”. It is an amazing episode in our history of honor above and beyond the call of duty.
The footage which was made available to Kennedy is all authentic and I cannot imagine who was filming. And it is as gripping as Argo. When you see all those Navy ships overflowing with evacuees it simply boggles the mind what an operation this was. There are surely lessons to be learned and non more immediate than right now. As Dickens said: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”
Review by Belle McIntyre