Sept. 24 2014 03:23 PM

Multiple stories of heroism, indecision and guilt converge in a riveting documentary

The Last Days of Vietnam

Very few war documentaries consider life beyond the front lines. Even fewer contemplate the cultural and social overlap that occurs when occupying soldiers and local citizens cohabitate for a long period of time. New professional relationships and multicultural families are forged, reminders that victory isn't the only thing at stake when war reaches critical mass.

The Last Days of Vietnam sees each of these ideas as focal points in the telling of America's final withdrawal from Saigon, a layered and critical moment in history that signifies something beyond merely a Communist victory over U.S. foreign policy. Constructed like a thriller in which an entire city races against time to escape, the film stitches together rare archival footage with revealing interviews to build tension. Countless stories converge, forming an unimaginable grid of crisscrossing scenarios, some that will end happily and others bound for despair. Director Rory Kennedy uses both American and Vietnamese perspectives to convey the complexity of those waning days before the capital fell.

The Last Days of Vietnam provides a certain level of context in the opening moments for those viewers not up on their Vietnam War history, specifically the enactment and failure of the 1973 Peace Accords spearheaded by President Richard Nixon in order to establish a détente between the warring parties. CIA analyst Frank Snepp calls the pact signed in Paris "a masterpiece of ambiguity," referring to the blurry end game if the North Vietnamese forces did indeed violate the terms and invade. They did just that on March 10, 1975, swooping south and conquering one province after the next with deadly force.

Kennedy charts the few months leading up to the North's final descent on Saigon, including freshly minted President Gerald Ford's attempt to provide aid despite homegrown and congressional angst regarding any legislation associated with the conflict.

On the ground, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin stubbornly held on to the notion that the eroding South Vietnamese army would defend the city, leaving U.S. military personnel in a precarious bind when it came to evacuating local friends and family members. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington saw the situation as "a moral dilemma" and decided to take matters into his own hands, enacting a subversive extraction protocol to get his Vietnamese colleagues out of the country without his superiors' consent.

Untold stories like these are what make The Last Days of Vietnam so affecting. It's a meticulous documentary that finds grand meaning in small human decisions made under pressure. No one felt more responsibility than the bullish Martin, a North Carolinian who'd lost a son in the war. On April 29, 1975, he finally acquiesced to the evacuation of U.S. military forces and Vietnamese citizens who'd either worked for or collaborated with the Americans. Chinook helicopters spent nearly 18 hours taxiing refugees from the embassy to ships anchored off the coast. Within this timeline, Kennedy finds a treasure trove of important moments that showcase the courage and desperation organic to a city under siege.

While Martin and his staff were airlifting thousands of civilians from the embassy, Special Forces advisor Richard Armitage was instrumental in leading the naval evacuation of the Saigon port. With the help of naval officer Kim Diem, the two men guided more than 30 ships out to Con Son Island and then on to the Philippines for safe passage. Armitage emerges an integral presence in The Last Days of Vietnam, a man who'd worked closely with local soldiers throughout his three tours in country. "Eventually, you're able to dream in Vietnamese," he says frankly. So much was on the line during this mass exodus, including the future of many relationships.

If America's tragic involvement in Southeast Asia remains increasingly resonant as the years pass, it's because films like The Last Days in Vietnam—which opens Friday, Sept. 26, at the Ken Cinema and runs through Thursday, Oct. 2—challenge the Cliff's Notes of history and force us to readdress ideas and assumptions that have long been ingrained in the public psyche.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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