Film Review: The Last Days in Vietnam

October 22, 2014

Last Days in Vietnam. The film’s title and that it was made as
part of PBS’s American Experience series should have tipped me off that it
would be no different than most US films about the war in Vietnam -- that is,
fully focused on the experiences and perspectives of Americans there and only
able to pay cursory attention to the Vietnamese who were supporters of or
employed by the US intervention forces. The Vietnamese people in this film
aren’t merely props, but only barely.

Yes, there is powerful archival footage never seen in a film
before. Yes, there are moving interviews with US vets and South Vietnamese vets
and citizens connected to the US war effort looking back on what they did and
didn’t do and the consequences. But in the end, this documentary embraces a
singular US perspective, fully informed by regret and guilt, bent on
rehabilitating the US war project in Vietnam. That some US military and
government officials and personnel acted in honorable ways toward their South
Vietnamese counterparts is undeniable. But focusing the narrative on these “last
days” and highlighting the role of “humanitarian” efforts to evacuate
Vietnamese allies inevitably distorts the historical record.  

About ten minutes in, the key American characters have been
established. They include a strangely optimistic and intransigent US
ambassador, who refuses to consider the possibility that US forces are on the
brink of retreat, several lower-level officers, embassy workers, and enlisted
US soldiers who do the best they can in difficult circumstances. The regret
about leaving behind Vietnamese who were “loyal” that informs the various US
servicemen’s recollections is genuine, but one wonders why there was
hand-wringing over the thousands they wanted to help and so little sympathy to
spare for the nation and millions already devastated.   

We are plunged into the chaos (which no doubt existed) of the
reunification, or fall -- depending on your political lens -- of Saigon with
them. Surely, one of the strongest potentials of documentary film is its
ability to provide the context needed for historical understanding. Why was the
United States in Vietnam? Why was the country divided into North and South?
What happened between the time the US sent in “advisors” in 1961 and April
1975? But Last Days instead relies on tired, old (and
un-nuanced) explanations: the United States was in Vietnam to aid a
“democratic” government push back against aggressive Communists “invading” from
the North.

This comes complete with a disturbingly unself-conscious graphic
map of Vietnam depicting the encroaching Communist forces as a slow, steady
blood-red stain. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was watching
something from the Cold War era. An ominous soundtrack accompanies audio
commentary in this passage highlighting how fearful the South Vietnamese
(allied with or working for the US forces, I must reiterate) and their families
were at the thought of what the People’s Army of Vietnam would do to them and
their families. My own family was implicated with first the French colonial
regime and some didn’t survive the ascension of the Viet Minh to power in the
North in the 1950s. Later, in the South, my dad was a low-ranking officer in
the ARVN, and my family also fled in the early months of 1975. So I know the
fear was real. It’s just that if you were, say, a Martian, with no knowledge of
the actual history of US intervention in Vietnam (and the French before it) and
the devastation it wreaked on both the land and its people, watching this
documentary you’d think that the only forces engaged in killing were those of
the North Vietnamese. Forget about carpet-bombing, Agent Orange, the Strategic
Hamlet program, and more than three million Southeast Asian dead. Sadly, many
in the Manhattan audience I saw it with were either genuinely unaware of the
lack of critical analysis or just relieved to see Viets on screen as real
people and not stock caricatures. (For an exceptional US-made documentary about
the war in Vietnam, check out Emile de Antonio’s 1968 In
the Year of the Pig
, which is chock-full of historical footage.)

The tense moments of impending US evacuation Last
 focuses on of
course do provide a gripping narrative and it’s novel to see any attention paid
to the collective Vietnamese experience in a US-made documentary. Perhaps what
I find most galling then is this precise focus on the few “noble” acts that
some US servicemen undertook to help their friends and families. The
lionization of US officials and marines can in no way define the US
intervention in Vietnam. The film cheers the “black ops” these men undertook to
help the Vietnamese they worked with, who depended on or supported them -- while
conveniently obscuring the much bigger black ops that took place as part of the
US war effort to “kill anything that moves.”

I have already heard the defense: This film and its filmmaker were
just trying to be neutral and present archival footage and commentary from some
participants so that audiences can make up their own minds. But as we know,
what you choose to include and highlight matters as much as what you exclude or
push into the background.

Appearing on The Daily Show, Rory
Kennedy offered this for a short summary of the political context: “The country
falls within four months because the US isn’t there…. They [the North
Vietnamese] broke the peace accord…. There was no support by the US and…it fell
like a house of cards.” I happen to agree with the “falling like a house of
cards” analogy, but from a vastly different perspective. Corrupt regimes like
the one that existed in South Vietnam in 1975 -- that didn’t even pretend to
embody yearnings for national independence and liberation -- do not tend to
have much popular support.

No doubt the coming fortieth anniversary of this war also has much
to do with Last Days’ particular
rewriting of the history. At a time when “the United States is ‘abandoning’
Iraq and Afghanistan” is the dominant lens through which the latest military
adventures of our state is seen, the argument (for those in power) that is of
paramount importance is that the United States was right to be there, was right
to intervene, and should not have left. They could not be more wrong.

My six-year-old, curious about a postcard I picked up at the
screening about a connected project to preserve the stories of those who lived
through those “last days” and came to live in the United States, asked me why
the documentary asserted that it was the last days when the country obviously
still exists. Sadly, the film never even imagines this question.