The documentary "The Last Days in Vietnam" has great footage from before the fall of Saigon. Credit: Hugh Doyle
'The Last Days in Vietnam' Director: Rory Kennedy Genre: Documentary Rating: NR 3 (out of 5) Globes
For the most part, “The Last Days in Vietnam” is what one would point to as an example of a documentary that a) sums up a specific subject well and b) does it with visual panache. The topic is the literal last days of the Vietnam War, when the North Vietnamese Communists were about to seize the South. With Saigon on the cusp of falling, the U.S. military laboriously airlifted the city’s American citizens onto boats. Then they realized there were untold throngs of South Vietnamese citizens hoping to escape their new overlords, with re-education camps and labor prisons awaiting them.
Dubbed “Operation Frequent Wind,” the mission to rescue the Vietnamese population as well wasn’t easy; the military had to put locals, 50 at a time, on helicopters, then deposit them on overcrowded boats. (These were intended to house 200; they wound up with 2,000.) It’s a stirring tale of selflessness, where the heroism is exhausting and time-consuming, but which resulted in 7,000 saved — still a low number, but still.
This is a talking heads-and-clips documentary. But that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty. There are many iconic photos from the operation: images of helicopters falling into the sea, of endless lines of people waiting to board overstuffed helicopters. Turns out there were plenty of people with moving cameras as well. Instead of inundating us with faces, director Rory Kennedy fills the frame with archival footage of what seems like every second of the mission. Rather than be a dry history lessons, it has an immediate, you-are-there quality, with people yakking in your ears over thrilling images.
And yet despite the ceaseless annotations, from Americans and Vietnamese alike, it still feels shallow, even lacking. That Henry Kissinger is there, uncontested as he pawns off the same dodgy claims he has for four decades, is a problem, as is the relative paucity of Vietnamese presence. Even the people the film has are generally reduced to anonymous sources, standing in for a blank whole. The film gains in power as it goes on yet it still feels considerably lacking. Sacrificing thrills for information, it turns out, isn’t entirely a good thing.