A small crisis in the standard-issue history-doc form crests in Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam, wherein scads of fascinating archival footage manage to reinforce a host of well-established narratives about the United States’ final withdrawal from Saigon in April 1975. Kennedy’s interviewees—participants in the disastrously piecemeal evacuations—solemnly recount events as the filmmaker interweaves the footage, but the screen fails to identify a source for it, to give it any kind of timetable. It’s easy to see how a more willfully postmodern documentarian like Errol Morris or Agnès Varda could perhaps replay the images to the interviewees to jog their memories and unearth long-buried details, but for Kennedy it seems to suffice as mere illustration. In other words, the film gives more gravity to its (predominantly white, American) talking heads than to the sea of distraught Vietnamese faces on screen—even if their betrayal is the supposed grease for the film’s indignation.
The withdrawal’s inherent moral dilemmas are made explicit; their relation to the material in hindsight are frustratingly under-considered. In some ways, the documentary is troubled by its dual focus on the nuts and bolts of the evacuation, and the larger policy gridlock that made it such a fiasco. It’s averred that Nixon’s resignation over Watergate emboldened the North Vietnamese for their final push south, and that Congress’s refusal of $722 million—for the purposes of pulling out over 5,000 Americans and an untold number of Vietnamese—left the Ford Administration powerless. That Kennedy can toggle between interviews with disgraced C.I.A. agent turned whistleblower Frank Snepp—who wrote Decent Interval, the definitive firsthand account of the agency’s abandonment of its subcontractors in Vietnam—and none other than Henry Kissinger himself without a whit of irony speaks to the documentary’s political sheepishness.
Until the airlift begins, the film’s bogeyman is U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, who insisted for months, despite reams of C.I.A. counter-intel to the contrary, that Saigon was secure. The reasons for Martin’s catastrophic denial are barely explored by Kennedy, beyond a State Department employee who says the following: “You gotta remember, this is an ambassador who had lost his only son in combat in Vietnam. One becomes pretty invested in that country.” Even though the State Department answers to the White House, Kissinger is permitted to repeat a four-decades-old party line about the humanitarian urgency of the evacuations into Kennedy’s camera as if his hands were tied, and the disinterest in interrogating him—about Martin’s supposed stubbornness, to cite just one example—is palpable. It betrays the film’s submission in the face of power.
And yet, Martin’s ad-hoc scheme to get as many Vietnamese out of the embassy compound in the last 24 hours—carried out in U.S. military helicopters, 40 to 50 at a time—gives the final half hour of Last Days in Vietnam an emphasis on heroism, highlighting a handful of admittedly fascinating tales from the airlift. That Vietnamese were greeted by naval officers with food and water is a small example of American magnanimousness; this is where the inefficiency and callousness of the geopolitical situation swirling around them recedes in importance to Kennedy’s inquiry. One Vietnamese-American interviewee discusses being evacuated with his mother, and the screen shows a mother with small children huddled aboard an aircraft carrier—and then another, and then another, unintentionally anonymizing the struggle of this refugee’s family. For unaware American viewers, Last Days in Vietnam will be a worthy footnote to a long bout of deliberate cultural amnesia, but it’s too telling that the Vietnamese remain in the background.