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Review: Oscar-nominated doc ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ offers unique account (Includes first-hand account)

The Vietnam War presented a unique situation for the United States in that they had technically lost the battle. The Paris Peace Accords proclaimed a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam, ending direct U.S. military involvement and resulting in the majority of American troops going home save for a small military faction and contractors. However when the communists resumed their invasion of southern territories with brutal efficiency after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the American government was faced with a number of decisions as were the men still assigned to the region. Last Days in Vietnam is a documentary about the days that followed the initial attack.

At the time, Vietnam was the most visually chronicled battle in American history. For this reason it’s said the war was also waged on American television screens. As a result, any effort to look back at the affair is subsidized by an abundance of photos and video. While this documentary is composed of numerous interviews with American and Vietnamese military, government officials and civilians, most of their statements are supported by images of the incidents they’re describing that often even feature the speaker. This negates the need for recreations and provides audiences with a unique perspective of a chaotic few weeks.

The event at the centre of the film is the evacuation of American citizens and their Vietnamese contacts before the North Vietnamese occupied the whole territory. Due to its perceived failure and soured opinion of the action, the United States refused to re-enter the country to launch a military offense. This decision opened the door for the communists to swiftly and efficiently takeover the southern provinces.

In the interviews, military personnel recount U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin’s reluctance to begin an official evacuation. He believed a political settlement could be reached before the enemy reached their main holding in Saigon and didn’t want to incite panic amongst the city’s citizens. However as the country began to fall under communist control, the capture of Saigon appeared inevitable. The delay and bombing of the nearest airport forced the extraction to be conducted via their last resort: helicopter.

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long ...

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy — a scene from ‘Last Days of Vietnam’
American Experience Films

Many of the images of these proceedings have been seen either through archival footage or representations in movies that take place during the same period. This film provides context and first-hand knowledge of the events that’s never been so collectively and aptly articulated in a single source. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recounts his interactions with President Gerald Ford on the matter. A Vietnamese student remembers gathering at the embassy in the hopes of boarding one of the helicopters. Several U.S. Marines relay their own efforts to establish an underground railroad for colleagues in foreseeable danger under the incoming regime. An embassy guard talks about Martin’s determination to save as many of the awaiting Vietnamese as possible, disobeying orders to restrict the evacuation to U.S. citizens. Naval crew recollect the hundreds of refugees welcomed onto their ships and pushing now useless aircrafts into the ocean so others could land. A helicopter pilot communicates the fatigue felt by him and his comrades as they repeatedly carried people from the embassy. The only voice missing is of an American with a Vietnamese family — of which there were many — though there are tales of Vietnamese military removing their own relatives.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but the stories provided by these men are invaluable. Hearing their accounts over actual footage and photos from the same events is incredibly powerful and captivating. Unsurprisingly, director/producer Rory Kennedy earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary in this week’s announcement.

Director: Rory Kennedy

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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