'Last Days of Vietnam'

U.S. mistakes were made—and reexamined—in 'Last Days of Vietnam'
MAKING SPACE: Crew members of the USS Kirk pushed some helicopters overboard to make room for others that still needed to land.

The saga of ruin and futility is painful enough for Americans to remember. The finale is even more humiliating, and that explains the sometimes tiptoe approach documentary maker Rory Kennedy (RFK's daughter) takes in Last Days in Vietnam. The primarily American interviewees here include the ever-exculpatory Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the end of the war in 1975, former CIA agent Frank Snepp (the sharpest character among these analysts) and Juan Valdez and Mike Sullivan, two of the last 11 Marines airlifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Kennedy also found several officers from the USS Kirk—that was the vessel whose sailors deep-sixed the empty Huey helicopters into the South China Sea, in the famous news photos.

The first half, in shadowy library-ish lighting, is a bit too laden with talking heads for the large screen. Stick with it, because the later story of the evacuation of Saigon is far more thrilling... and saddening.  The one who isn't there to defend his actions gets the most blame: Ambassador Graham Martin's deliberate unwillingness to see what was coming was fatal for an untold number of our South Vietnamese allies. Martin's hesitation meant that the US had to use the worst option for removing tens of thousands of refugees. This was a short-notice, all-night airlift by slow, small helicopters—a military operation that was like draining a pond with a teaspoon.

Warm stories of courage enliven Last Days second half, amid the surreal incidents of the implosion of the Embassy (we learn it took two Marines eight hours to burn one million dollars in US currency). Stay for Miki Nguyen's incredible account of the escape of his entire family, thanks to his nerveless pilot father and a borrowed Chinook helicopter.

The finale is comfortless; footage of ARVN soldiers leaving their boots and uniforms and melting into the crowd that escaped. But the savage vindictiveness of the victorious forces were everything that the commie-haters dreamed of, and more. And today in America, it's another day, another morass.  

Last Days of Vietnam

Not rated; 98 min.

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