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Movie Review - "Last Days In Vietnam"

Nantucket Film Festival Winner of Audience Award for Best Feature

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Film at the recently-concluded Nantucket Film Festival, “Last Days In Vietnam” tells the stories of heroic efforts by American soldiers and civilians who ignored US orders and saved tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with Americans and whose lives were in danger as the North Vietnamese Army overran all the major cities in southern Vietnam and closed in on Saigon.

The documentary features newly-discovered video showing how Americans violated direct orders, using helicopters to ferry Vietnamese families to US Navy ships waiting offshore in the South China Sea. Some of this video was shot by Americans helping to land helicopters on moving ships so that Vietnamese people could be rescued when all other means of escape had been closed off.

The film explains how the Peace Treaty signed with North Vietnam in January 1973 led to the removal of nearly all American military forces. Left behind were diplomats, intelligence officers, and a handful of soldiers assigned to guard the American embassy in Saigon. When the North Vietnamese Army overran the southern cities, the South Vietnamese army and government collapsed, leaving Vietnamese people to fend for themselves.

The American ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, feared creating a panic if he were to begin a large-scale evacuation of South Vietnamese government officials, soldiers, and their families, even though he understood that these American allies would be in grave danger of reprisals by the North Vietnamese. By waiting too long, Ambassador Martin lost the chance to use the Saigon airport and docks when these facilities were destroyed by North Vietnamese artillery. Valuable explanations are provided by former Saigon-based CIA officer Frank Snepp, author of the book, “Decent Interval,” a book that was for many years was banned from distribution in the US.

The only option remaining was to pick up evacuees using small helicopters, but American soldiers and pilots were under strict orders to bring out only the few remaining American diplomats, press, and embassy guards. These were the orders Americans soldiers felt they had to ignore.

“Last Days In Vietnam” is filled with stories of how one American after another fought with his conscience to rescue the people who had been his allies in a war that by 1975 had gone on for more than twelve years. While the war was ultimately lost, the heroic efforts of Americans trying to save their allies go a long way to redeem the failure of the US government to keep its promises to the people who cast their lot with the Americans. This documentary finds a most exciting silver lining in the midst of the great tragedy that was the American war in Vietnam. Yet the film-makers -- director/producer Rory Kennedy (director of “Ethel), and her writer (and husband) Mark Bailey do not ignore the great number of South Vietnamese people who, as a result of inadequate planning by American officials, were captured and sent to re-education camps by the war’s victors, who themselves feared having their victory in this thirty-year war against the French and Americans reversed by the efforts of those they saw as having sided with their enemies. The film reminds us that the longer and more brutal the war, the more harsh is the resulting peace, when it finally arrives.

“Last Days In Vietnam” wisely excludes narration or commentary by historians and other policy experts, instead allowing us to experience the crisis environment of those last few days before the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon, much sooner than anyone expected.

Yet this documentary has much to teach us about how to end a war. These lessons were not applied in Iraq. American soldiers and reporters from that war are still trying to rescue the people who worked with US forces as translators. Perhaps these lessons  could still be followed in the war we are now trying to bring to an end in Afghanistan. To truly end a war and restore peace, it is essential to protect the people who have fought with us on the losing side.

I suspect the people who will most appreciate “Last Days In Vietnam” are the members of the US military who fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and who realize how messy is the ending of a war. These veterans understand how great is the need for individuals who see the right thing to do and try to do it.

The stories of individual heroism depicted in this documentary may help to explain why Vietnamese people demonstrate such affection for American visitors; they may understand, as we do, that our people have generally been better than our government.