Just as the Vietnam War began—in dribs and drabs, unofficially and by proxy—so it seemed to drag on, well past any kind of definitive end. “A masterpiece of ambiguity,” CIA agent Frank Snepp calls the 1973 Paris Peace Accords in the riveting documentary Last Days in Vietnam, in a few words dismissing the high-minded goals of diplomacy with a survivor’s on-the-ground recall. (Henry Kissinger, too, has evasive thoughts to offer in this remarkably thorough account.) Months, even years, after the Paris signing, American soldiers and their families were living in Saigon, monitoring an unraveling détente.
Still, finales don’t get more conclusive than the image of helicopters evacuating personnel from the U.S. embassy in April 1975. Last Days in Vietnam unpacks this infamous escape, along with the final weeks beforehand, when secret airlifts and desperate money exchanges kept pace with the creeping North Vietnamese forces. The doc achieves unusual complexity, especially in its handling of late ambassador Graham Martin, a stern patriot in interview footage but also, we learn, the parent of a fallen soldier. Martin’s wounded pride is given voice by several servicemen who sit for the camera.
Teased out of the morass with an appropriate level of positivity are certain acts of heroism: Officers broke with protocol to smuggle out helpless South Vietnamese, while helicopter pilots flew hazardous exit runs well into the night. Provocatively, the film suggests that winning small battles was victory enough; Saigon natives, also interviewed, were left behind to endure death camps.
Director Rory Kennedy is occasionally too slick for this material, adding computer-animated maps and sound effects when silent 16mm footage might have served. (I’ll leave it to pundits to comment on JFK’s niece making a film about this particular war.) Yet her effort’s value can’t be overstated, bringing clarity to an endgame many would rather forget.
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