So many documentaries about the Vietnam War have been made over the past half-century that it’s hard to imagine what more there could possibly be to say. The strength of Last Days In Vietnam, directed by Rory Kennedy (Robert F. Kennedy’s youngest daughter, whose last doc was about her mother, Ethel), is that it mostly refrains from trying to “say” anything. Instead, the film serves strictly as an oral history of the events of April 29–30, 1975, when the Viet Cong rolled into Saigon and decisively ended the conflict, forcing the mass evacuation of the few remaining Americans and as many endangered South Vietnamese families as possible. Standard talking-head interviews are accompanied by extensive, often stunning archival footage, so deftly assembled by Kennedy and editor Don Kleszy that there’s barely a word spoken that doesn’t have a corresponding memorable image. It’s not a documentary that reinvents the form or will alter anyone’s perception of the war, but sometimes a rich, exhaustive chronicle is more than enough.
For most people, Hubert Van Es’ photograph of South Vietnamese civilians climbing a ladder to board an Air America chopper captures the fall of Saigon’s most iconic moment. The story of that photograph is in Last Days, but by the time it appears, the surrounding context makes it seem comparatively insignificant. The real chaos went down at the U.S. Embassy (the building in Van Es’ rooftop photo, assumed by many to be the Embassy, is not), which was crammed with several thousand aspiring refugees, and at sea, where U.S. carriers struggled to make room for incoming South Vietnamese helicopters. Because the Viet Cong had shelled Tan Son Nhat Airport, airlifting people out by helicopter was the only practical option, necessitating hundreds of jam-packed flights. The most riveting anecdote, related by Miki Nguyen (who was 6 years old at the time), concerns a Chinook helicopter, too big to land safely on the USS Kirk, which hovered overhead as his mother dropped his infant sister 30 feet to be caught by servicemen on deck. Seeing plentiful still photos and even some brief Super-8 footage of this harrowing rescue, which concludes with the pilot leaping from the Chinook as it crashes, makes Nguyen’s tale unforgettable.
When Last Days In Vietnam premiered at Sundance earlier this year, a few critics took it to task for not providing a more general overview of the war itself, as if that subject hasn’t been thoroughly explored in umpteen other documentaries. In truth, the film overreaches a bit at the very end, indulging U.S. military personnel who argue that the fall of Saigon was symbolic of America’s entire involvement in Southeast Asia. Not only is such armchair philosophizing unnecessary, but it threatens to trivialize remarkably complex feelings and actions. For instance, simply watching U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin evolve from villain to hero—initially refusing to plan an evacuation, stubbornly insisting that everything will work out, and later placing thousands of South Vietnamese citizens on helicopters and refusing to leave the Embassy himself until finally ordered to do so by President Ford—makes both the hubris and the heroism inherent in the United States’ presence there abundantly clear. Last Days In Vietnam is a clear-eyed, scrupulous account, gripping from start to finish.