Last Days in Vietnam

A scene from "Last Days in Vietnam"

A scene from “Last Days in Vietnam”

When creating a documentary a filmmaker has basically two options. One option is to be present, camera running, when events are actually unfolding. These events can then be supplemented with interviews. What are the filmmaker’s options, though, when making a documentary today about an event that occurred in 1975? Director and Producer Rory Kennedy, and her crew, have answered this question with a highly compelling and riveting documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam.”

I have seen “Last Days in Vietnam” twice. It is a pulse pounding, suspenseful, fascinating, thriller like account of the final days of the United States’ presence in Vietnam. This documentary takes off like a shot and does not let up until the end of its 98 minute running time. I defy any formulaic Hollywood summer movie to match it.

A documentary needs great characters and, to this end, “Last Days in Vietnam” delivers. This is a story about good people putting themselves on the line to do the right thing…even if that right thing means going against the law and the potential resulting consequences.

Another element that any good movie, narrative or documentary, needs is to have are stakes that are high. In other words, the audience has to care. “Last Days in Vietnam” is structured so beautifully that the stakes just keep getting higher and higher.

When the Vietnam War was winding down, the North Vietnamese army was wary of President Nixon. Even though the Paris Peace Accords (which said the US was withdrawing from Vietnam) had been signed in 1973, the North Vietnamese still feared that Nixon might re-enter the war. They considered him to be a mad man. However, when Nixon resigned, in 1974, over Watergate, the North became emboldened and started to march south toward Saigon and the American Embassy. While Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been hoping for a peaceful co-existence between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, this was not going to happen. Graham Martin, the American ambassador in South Vietnam, was in denial about what was transpiring. Martin’s son had been killed in the war. To Martin, pulling out and allowing the south to fall, would mean that his son had died in vain. Even with evidence of the advancing North Vietnamese army, Martin would not budge. Meanwhile there were members of the South Vietnamese army and Vietnamese citizens who had cooperated with the American forces. If the North Vietnamese captured them, they would be killed. Official policy was to only evacuate U.S. citizens and their dependents. American officers faced a moral dilemma. What happened next is what makes “Last Days in Vietnam” an incredible story that many do not know.

Kennedy, editor Don Kleszy and writers Mark Bailey and Kevin McAlester, have brilliantly and seamlessly juxtaposed news reel footage, stock footage, and, I believe, super 8 footage, television news broadcasts and stills with present day interviews with those who were on the ground, inside the American Embassy, in the helicopters and on the ships. All of this is supplemented by animated maps, which clearly explain what was going on. This, along with footage of the time and present day interviews, serves to put the viewer in the middle of the action. “Last Days in Vietnam” also manages the very challenging task of juggling different points of view of the same events and does this with ease and clarity. The cumulative effect is, first of all, great story telling and, second, an incredible, intelligent and emotionally rewarding re-creation of history.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 20, 2014, in Documentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Loved the film as I am a VN Vet – I left in 72 though. I wondered why the emotional story in Operation Frequent Wind where Air Force Major Buang-Ly of South Vietnam on April 29, 1975 landed a small Cessna with his entire family (5 people in a Cessna built for 2) on the Midway, where the crew made room for his landing was not in the film. The Cessna is hanging from the ceiling in the Pensacola Naval Air Museum. The crew also had to shove a Huey overboard to make room for the landing – the story was amazing and I would have thought very, very relevant to the movie.

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