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In her latest documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” director and producer Rory Kennedy takes viewers on a 98-minute, riveting journey about the final hours of the evacuation of Saigon. From a war that spanned two decades and has been the subject of numerous films (both Hollywood blockbusters and documentaries), Kennedy has chosen to hone in on a few precious hours that would shape the course of history and millions of lives.
In doing research for the Oscar-nominated film, Kennedy managed to bring together those who helped draft the war, such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, those who implemented it on the ground and those who were caught in the middle. Without narration, the film interweaves narratives of personal plights with historical content from Washington, D.C., to Saigon.
The sequence of events, including President Gerald Ford’s unsuccessful attempt to get congressional approval for more military aid to the South Vietnamese and the story of the U.S. ambassador on the ground who, despite being warned of the north’s steadfast advances, waited until the last minute to order evacuations, plays out in rapid-fire ticktock fashion, punctuated by personal stories of heroism.
Once the evacuation order of all Americans is given from Washington, CIA operatives on the ground, U.S. Marines stationed at the embassy and military commanders recount emotional memories of last-minute attempts to rescue as many South Vietnamese as possible. The film details the dilemma so many Americans stationed there faced. Over the years they had developed relationships as colleagues, friends and family with locals, and they were determined to help them escape along with the remaining Americans. Kennedy interviews native South Vietnamese men who recall their harrowing experiences. Whether it is the tale of a military officer who has worked alongside the Americans or of a young student colleague who is trying to escape the fast-spreading communist doctrine of the north, each story has time to breathe and captivate viewers.
Each story makes its way to those last fateful hours at the U.S. Embassy, which was widely seen as the only safe haven left in the country. Hundreds were airlifted to nearby U.S. ships, but unfortunately many were left behind. One particularly emotional scene in the film shows U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington tearfully recalling the promise he made to the final hundreds crowded on the embassy yard and rooftop that “nobody is going to be left behind. … When you are in the American Embassy, you are on American soil.”
Unfortunately, Herrington was not able to keep his promise. Kennedy interviews a young man who was in that final group of desperate South Vietnamese waiting to be rescued. His fate would become the fate of millions left behind — sent to re-education camp, otherwise known as labor camp.
Kennedy manages to take one of America’s darkest chapters and find wide-ranging bravery and heroism, including stories of those who chose to defy orders and, in doing so, restored a bit of humanity. She also believes that parallels and lessons can be drawn from the war in Vietnam to the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All three, she says, highlight the unintended consequences of war and the responsibility that we, as a country, have for those caught in the cross hairs or left behind. The history of the Vietnam War was one Kennedy grew up hearing all about. Her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated before Rory was born, but she says she was drawn to the story of the ill-fated war because she knew it was something her father was campaigning to end before he was killed.