Friday, December 5, 2014

Last Days in Vietnam

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM               C+                  
USA  (98 mi)  2014  d:  Rory Kennedy               Official site

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is partly because that is the road they generally start out on.
—Stephen Garrard Post, from Altruism & Altruistic Love, 2002

Still one of the single most significant events of our lifetime, the Vietnam War was a powder keg of turmoil and discontent opening wounds of a divided nation where the rift may not have healed a half century later, as the whole world seemed to change in the failed attempts to stop the war.  What separated this from the two Great Wars was the lingering sense of ambiguity about why we were there in the first place, and the immediacy of the images that were broadcast into American households as the war dragged on throughout the decade of the 60’s and the early 70’s, longer than either of the Great Wars.  While battling tyranny had defined earlier military adventures, Vietnam was fraught with underlying questions from the outset, literally fracturing the conscience of the nation, coinciding with the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, both epic struggles that brought the two races together, often in conflict, creating a turbulent decade of protests and social unrest.  The film doesn’t get into this ideological divide, or any of the moral questions surrounding the war, but instead focuses only upon a narrow point in history when America made its final exit from Vietnam. 

The events were precipitated by the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his Vietnamese counterpart Lê Đức Thọ (who refused to accept the award) were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize, thought to be the end of a long and tortuous war, but the agreement was never ratified by the Senate and Congress never passed Nixon’s $722 million dollar request to withdraw the final 5,000 Americans and as many as 200,000 Vietnamese and their families, remaining a bone of contention for years to come.  However, relative peace was attained, where the fighting stopped, dividing Vietnam into two nations much like Korea, as the United States began withdrawing its troops while proclaiming “peace with honor.”  However, once the Watergate scandal deposed President Nixon from office in late 1974, the North Vietnamese seized the moment and sent troops streaming into South Vietnam by the spring of 1975 where they encountered little opposition.  America had no stomach for returning to war, but in Saigon, thousands of Americans remained, not only military personnel with their extensive weaponry and equipment, but government contractors, journalists, security and diplomatic staff, including the American Ambassador Graham Martin, who refused to believe that Saigon would fall.  Basically, this film documents events taking place on April 29th and 30th of 1975 once the North Vietnamese troops began entering the streets of the city, causing mass panic and hysteria from a forced emergency evacuation. 

The youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, Rory Kennedy has made a career out of Sundance documentaries, the most recent of which was a portrait of her mother, ETHEL (2012), where this film is expected to air on the PBS show American Experience, and unfortunately that’s exactly what this feels like, an extremely old-fashioned approach for a modern era film, a throwback to one of those Time-Life History Channel specials that offers archival war footage, with conventional (almost exclusively white) talking heads offering their own firsthand commentary, a continuation of the old Walter Cronkite You Are There (1953 – 57) series on CBS (originating as a radio show), where the 60’s re-runs often coincided with news coverage of the Vietnam War, introduced with the obligatory introductory remarks, “All things are as they were then, except you…are... there!”  The film offers no new revelations or insight, no essayed commentary, but simply interweaves available footage of the final two days, assembling it in some coherent chronological order, attempting to offer a historical timeline.  Because of Ambassador Martin’s refusal to even discuss an evacuation plan, it actually began without his input, as others showed greater foresight, realizing how lengthy a process it would be, especially after the airport runways were shelled by the advancing troops, where the use of helicopters and their limited cargo space was the only remaining option in transporting people to awaiting offshore American ships.  The great unknown factor in all this was the number of Vietnamese who were promised they would be evacuated, as it ranged from official high level personnel to ordinary soldiers on the street making the same promises, where eventually it became a massive transport operation attempting to smuggle out as many lives as possible, leaving behind multitudes of South Vietnamese and subcontractors who were forced to face persecution and incarceration by the Communist regime, including “re-education” camps.

While an official evacuation was eventually ordered, not until bomb blasts were landing nearby as there were only about 24-hours left to complete the operation, where we learn it takes 8-hours to burn a million dollars.  Meanwhile various clandestine operations were already in play, shuttling people on military trucks to an American airbase outside Saigon, while at the same time embassy staff were picking up key collaborators all over Saigon, in each case dropping them off boarding ships departing for the Philippines.  With masses of people huddled on the embassy grounds, with many more swarming outside, eventually climbing the walls to get in, a helicopter airlift using 75 Marine helicopters evacuated people continuously for 18-hours in nonstop rotations to offshore American carriers waiting nearby.  To his credit, Ambassador Martin refused to leave until all that could possibly be evacuated had left, leaving only when ordered to do so by President Ford, along with the final detail of less than a dozen Marine guards.  Along with the official American evacuation were plenty of improvised last ditch measures, as some helicopters flown by South Vietnamese pilots were also bringing in escaping families to the decks of the American destroyer USS Kirk, where crew members are seen pushing the choppers overboard into the ocean to make room for the next incoming flight, including a harrowing scene of a Chinook helicopter too big to land on deck, so a child is dropped 30 feet out of the air into the arms of a waiting serviceman, while the pilot heroically ditches the chopper into the ocean, jumping out at the last minute, saving himself.  That child, six-years old at the time, now an adult, relates the story of her own survival.  Perhaps the most distinctive quality of the film is an endless sea of distraught Vietnamese faces onscreen, where as many as a million refugees swarmed to the American Embassy hoping to get out, most abandoned at the last minute with desperate mothers handing over their children into the waiting arms of soldiers, where their betrayal is the ultimate humiliation and shame of the country that calls itself the greatest nation on earth.  As opposed to the restored archival footage provided in the television series Vietnam in HD (2011 to present) that is largely narrated by American veterans and the press who covered the war on the ground, offering a more personal commentary, this film doesn’t really offer anything new, but instead condenses the available footage, much of it shown on cheap and blurry film stock, and simply reframes a familiar story.         

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