To say that the Vietnam War represents a pivotal moment in American history would be an understatement. During that war, the U.S. truly began to realize and negotiate the responsibilities that come with being a world superpower. The event depicted in “Last Days in Vietnam,” America’s hasty evacuation of the country during the fall of Saigon, epitomizes the legacy of American involvement in Vietnam.

Last Days in Vietnam

Michigan Theater
American Experience Films

Directed by Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”), daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, the film skillfully weaves together a narrative based on personal accounts. Combining interviews with American personnel who were serving in Vietnam during the evacuation and South Vietnamese who were attempting to flee the country with intimate 8mm footage of the event, “Last Days” reveals the desperation of the country’s refugees and the unavoidable moral dilemmas created when people must flee a country they have sworn to protect.

As the North Vietnamese advanced on the South, their brutal executions and live burials of anticommunists spurred a massive tide of humanity fleeing in panic. Faced with a Congress denying any requests for more aid, a White House ordering that only Americans be permitted to evacuate and a stubborn ambassador refusing to evacuate until the last possible moment, many American soldiers and embassy workers risked treason in order to illegally evacuate South Vietnamese who had worked closely with the United States. During the April 29th evacuation of Saigon, thousands of people surrounded the U.S. embassy, appropriated military helicopters and flew out to sea, or jammed onto whatever ship they could find, all desperately hoping for an escape. For the Americans and their poorly planned evacuation, “the burning question was who goes and who gets left behind,” according to a U.S. Air Force Captain who took part in the evacuation.

The difficulty of this question adds a lot of tension to a subject that is already historically intriguing and visually dramatic. In one stunning reel of 8mm footage, the audience witnesses people packing themselves onto a moving plane as it takes off. In another reel, we see a South Vietnamese pilot who must abandon his helicopter over the ocean because it is too large to land on the rescue ship.

Despite the documentary’s comprehensive coverage of the evacuation of Saigon, it does lack a personal look at what the consequences were for those who got left behind. “Last Days” tells its audience about the North Vietnamese mass executions and forced labor in “reeducation” camps and even features interviews with men who survived those camps. However, Kennedy strangely never has them discuss their suffering at the hands of the communists. “Last Days” sets up this great moral quandary, then really fails to follow through on what it meant personally and emotionally for those unfortunate souls we left behind.

While “Last Days in Vietnam” is an incredibly powerful and interesting documentary, a deeper discussion of the consequences at a human level really would’ve driven the point home, especially considering its relevance to current U.S. military operations abroad. The film briefly glazes over South Vietnam’s feelings of betrayal, a sentiment that eerily echoes ex-Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s accusations of betrayal by the U.S. “Last Days” could also give new perspective to our military response to ISIS, the brutal militant group sweeping down from the north of Iraq in a manner disconcertingly reminiscent of North Vietnam’s devouring of the South. A summation of the film’s events not only epitomizes the entire Vietnam War rather nicely, but also our current conflicts: promises made in good faith, promises broken, but also good people doing what needs to be done in a screwed-up situation.

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