Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a private viewing of a spectacularly documentary by Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Before seeing the film, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the last days of Vietnam but I was totally wrong. Specifically, I had no idea there was no organized plan for the evacuation of Saigon of Americans or their South Vietnamese allies.
That there was no detailed plan was the fault of late U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin who refused for months to admit that Saigon would likely fall to the fast-encroaching North Vietnamese Army. It wasn’t until the 11th hour before preparations for the safe transport of those who remained in the city was put into place. But by orders of the White House, only American military and civilians and their families would be evacuated.
In the minds of many diplomats and soldiers this was the ultimate betrayal. They knew anyone who helped the Americans in even the smallest way 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.
Faced with the reality of certain imprisonment and possible death of their South Vietnamese allies, American diplomats and soldiers confronted a moral quandary: obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens, or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, heroes emerged as a small handful of Americans took matters into their own hands.
The principal figure to organize the clandestine evacuation of as many South Vietnamese Army members as possible under the circumstances was then U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, the film’s principal talking head. Another evidently courageous figure interviewed in the documentary is former Department of Defense official Richard Armitage, who conspired with South Vietnamese Navy Capt. Kiem Do to ship some 30,000 refugees out of the country. (We ran the heroic story of the USS Kirk in a previous Dispatches.)
A few days ago I came across a review of the film by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan. While his reviews of films do not always fit with mine, I read it with great care. When I finished I realized he got it right; he totally understood the message Rory Kennedy was showing us in her fascinating documentary. Below is what he wrote:
‘Last Days in Vietnam’ Movie review by Kenneth Turan
Sometimes the stories we think we know, the stories where we don’t want to hear another word, turn out to be the most involving of all, the ones we in fact know the least about. So it is with “Last Days in Vietnam.”
Not an examination of why we were in Vietnam or whether we should have been there in the first place, this altogether splendid documentary, directed by Rory Kennedy, is instead a thrilling and dramatic narrative of what happened in-country as the wheels started to fall off of America’s involvement.
Filled with compelling first-person stories both heroic and heartbreaking, “Last Days” details a complete debacle that brought out the best in all kinds of people. It is also the best work yet by Kennedy, the film her entire career has pointed her toward.
Kennedy is a veteran nonfiction filmmaker with either director or producer credits on some 25 docs, and her output has gotten increasingly impressive. Her last film, “Ethel,” a portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, was one of her best; before that, she directed the excellent, Emmy-winning “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”
Kennedy has put it all together with “Last Days.” She has the clout to get the right people on film, from 91-year-old Henry Kissinger to Marine pilots and U.S. Embassy guards, and she has honed her instincts about what a great story is and how best to present it on-screen.
Using expertly selected newsreel footage and fine visual effects by Doug Whitney to supplement her interviews, Kennedy and screenwriters Mark Bailey & Keven McAlester tell a series of interlocking tales about resourceful people who “ignored the rules and followed their hearts” when they could – as well as what happened when they couldn’t.