Pasadenans are lucky to have the Laemmle Pasadena 7 which is currently playing most of the Oscar-nominated films. This weekend only, the Oscar-nominated “Last Days in Vietnam” is being screened at the Laemmle.
For many of us, the Vietnam War is ancient history, something we were too young to understand or even much before our time and yet the impact of that war continues. The documentary doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins at the end.
For those of you who don’t know, the war began on 1 November 1955. Vietnam had been a French colony. The American military first arrived in 1950. The French had been in what they called Indochina since the 1850s. The Treaty of Hué formalized the French colonial rule that lasted seven decades, but French withdrew by 1954 after the defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, leaving the American military who meant to prevent the spread of communism under the domino theory.
John F. Kennedy has been concerned about the “Red Tide of Communism” when he was still a U.S. Senator. He would be dealing with what would become an unpopular war as a president. LBJ would inherit Vietnam after JFK’s assassination. It might have become a burden to Robert F. Kennedy has his run for the office of president been successful instead of ending prematurely with his death.
The director of “The Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy, is the youngest of Robert F. Kennedy’s children with his wife Ethel. Born in 1968, she was born in December after her father had been assassinated in June. She directed her first documentary in 1999 (“American Hollow”). Her last documentary was sentimental, looking at her mother’s life and called simply, “Ethel.” It was not well received at least by the New York Times.
Rory was six years old when the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975. The conflict had lasted 19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and one day and ended with a resounding American defeat. “The Last Days in Vietnam” tells of the approach of the North Vietnamese army and the fall of Saigon.
Using archival footage and some footage that had been kept in private hands, the documentary includes contemporary interviews with people on both sides: Americans and their South Vietnamese friends and allies. Forty years after the end of the war, it a good time to tell this story, one that we think we might know: We have enough distance from the events to look at them more objectively and in addition, some of the participants still are alive to give their personal accounts.
As a result, this movie is about people and not political strategies. We are dropped into the crowded streets Saigon in April of 1975. We see a Caucasian man or a black man walking amid these Southeast Asians. The traffic is a mix of older cars, some definitely painted faded with age. There’s a military presence and the suggestion of poverty and desperation: A scooter carries what appears to be a whole family–mother, father, two kids and possessions.
As a captain in the U.S. Army, Stuart Herrington, recounts, “As we begin to contemplate evacuation the burning question was: Who goes? Who gets left behind?”
Herrington himself helped some of the American allies to escape, gathering South Vietnamese majors and colonels and their families after borrowing a truck. He says, “I drove them to the airbase and I told them if you hear three thumps, hold the babies mouths, don’t breathe, don’t talk, don’t make any noise.”
It wasn’t LBJ or a Kennedy who would end the Vietnam War. Two years earlier, Henry Kissinger had helped arrange the Paris Peace Accord of 1973. President Richard M. Nixon would make the announcement to the American public, but Nixon would soon be gone, resigning the presidency in 1974. Gerald Ford would be president. He and others would be left to deal with what Herrington called “a terrible, terrible moral dilemma.”
While some had optimistically thought the accord would result in the co-existence of two countries–North and South Vietnam, not unlike North Korea and South Korea. The last American ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin (1912-1990), was, according to CIA analyst Frank Snepp, did not move fast enough. “He was not going to give up Saigon.” The delay in beginning the evacuation was disastrous. The 5,000- 6,000 Americans in Saigon had wives and children, mistresses and other dependents. Then there were the people who had been working for the Americans.
The North Vietnamese army surrounded Saigon and then they bombed the airport. The airport’s closure was an undeniable calling card that the ambassador had to accept. U.S. currency, secret documents, etc. had to be destroyed and the embassy had to be evacuated. There was no time, even less time than the intelligence indicated. If Graham Martin was slow to act, he wasn’t without courage and a sense of responsibility, as one person recounts that this evacuation happened because Graham Martin wanted it to happen and Martin initially refused to leave in order to increase the odds of evacuating more people.
Martin and Ford are dead, but Henry Kissinger is not and he speaks sadly about the situation. Getting a reluctant Kissinger to agree to an interview might seem as a real coup for this documentary. Yet the real strength of this film is from the personal accounts of men, doing what they could, providing personal accounts through tapes and even film footage that show us the enormity of the desperation.
Terry McNamara, Counsel General, recalls that he had been in Vietnam for almost five years, “I did have responsibility for people who had worked for us…so I decided that despite the order from Saigon, we’re going to really make an effort to evacuate the people who worked for us who I thought might be in mortal danger.” And much of the documentary is about the black ops, the rescue operations that were not officially sanctioned by the ambassador or military officials.
Dam Pham, a lieutenant in South Vietnamese Army, recalls the chaos as people gathered near the American embassy. Binh Pho, a college student at the time, felt lucky to get into the compound, yet more and more people kept piling in. He was one of the unlucky ones who didn’t make it out originally. Even during this time of chaos, people had time to cheat other people, taking money for a promised escape plan, but leaving people waiting by the docks. Connections helped, but when there was no more room, there was no more room.
Helicopters, airplanes and ships were being overcrowded by sometimes panicked people. The helicopters took a lucky few to a fleet of ships. A sailor who was on one of those ships, the USS Kirk had some undeveloped footage of the helicopters. South Vietnamese helicopters were chasing the fleets and the documentary includes 12 minutes of this dramatic footage and one person, recounts how a pilot had his five children on board and his family one-by-one jumped into the arms of sailors. The pilot then flies the helicopter to the starboard side of a ship and turns his helicopter to the right while jumping out the left door.
“The truth is, planning an evacuation was above my rank, but if you know something is right, you must ignore the rules and follow your heart,” one Vietnamese officer recounts.
Take time for this poignant look at the fall of Saigon. If you can’t make this weekend’s screenings at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 (also at the Royal, Claremont 5 and NoHo 7), the film, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, you can still watch it when it airs on PBS “American Experience” on 28 April 2015 at 8 p.m. (Check local listings).