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When the Paris Agreement was signed in 1973, effectively ending America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and withdrawing the bulk of our troops, legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger hoped that the resolution would lead to a situation similar to that in Korea: two separate states, one for the North Vietnamese and one for the South. These hopes were shattered when the North launched a massive assault on South Vietnam, systematically taking back any territory that had been ceded only a few short years earlier. With fresh memories of the atrocities that the North inflicted on their first campaign through Vietnam, the South Vietnamese civilians (and military) fled in panic before the rising surge. As the country was quickly retaken by the North, it became apparent that the cause was lost: at this point, the only thing to be done was for the refugees and remaining American military and diplomats to leave as soon as possible. Despite the increasingly dark clouds on the horizon, however, one man was determined to make a stand and prevent the inevitable: as the North marched and the South fled, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin was determined to stand strong, come hell or high water.

This story of American involvement, Northern aggression and Southern stoicism forms the foundation of Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam (2014), the full-length, Oscar-nominated ‘American Experience’ documentary that details the time period between American withdrawal in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Through a mixture of archival footage and interviews with American and Vietnamese military personnel, Kennedy shows the ways in which Ambassador Martin stalled the withdrawal as long as possible, partly because he refused to admit defeat but also because he seemed to genuinely want to save as many South Vietnamese civilians and military as possible. As one interviewee states, this “terrible moral dilemma” was the ax that hung over everyone’s heads, from President Gerald Ford to Richard Armitage to the individual men and women who were stationed in Vietnam. Despite having their marching orders, no one on the ground could just stand by and watch their former comrades-in-arms succumb to the very enemy they’d been jointly fighting: while not everyone made it out (short of a miracle, not everyone could have), thousands of South Vietnamese were rescued at the 11th hour, thanks to a combination of Ambassador Martin’s moxie, military black ops and good, old-fashioned stubbornness.

One of the most illuminating aspects of Kennedy’s documentary is its laser focus: rather than rehash pro and con arguments for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the very end game, when everything had already been decided and the world only waited for the dust (and blood) to settle. It’s a smart move, since it allows the film to really dig in to its subject: in particular, we end up with a pretty balanced, nuanced portrayal of Graham Martin, an individual who’s easily as divisive as they come. While there’s still more than a heaping dollop of political machinations to Ambassador Martin’s decision to delay withdrawing from Vietnam, it’s pretty hard to deny that he also carried very deeply for the South Vietnamese: his plan to stretch out the withdrawal by only including a couple of Americans in every chopper full of South Vietnamese was a bold one and one that could have easily blown up in his face. Regardless of what U.S. politicians were doing at the time, the diplomats and personnel who were actually on the ground, in the shit, were scrambling to come up with real solutions and plans of action, even as Viet Cong tanks rumbled through the countryside.

Some of the most powerful scenes in the film deal directly with the South Vietnamese military: the bit where a pilot heroically lands his chopper on a U.S. naval carrier, rolling out one side of the machine before the whole thing slides right into the ocean; the interviewee who talk about missing the last chopper out of Saigon and spending the next 13 years in a North Vietnamese work camp; the heartbreaking moment where the South Vietnamese military lower their flag and sing their anthem for the last time…when Last Days in Vietnam kicks, it kicks like a mule. Just as powerful, for different reasons, is the scene where Martin finally admits defeat and prepares for “Option Four (the chopper evacuation)”: for the first time in the footage, Martin looks old, tired and defeated, a quick-witted huckster watching his kingdom burn for the last time.

As a film, Last Days in Vietnam is very well-made, although it never feels far removed from what it actually is: a PBS documentary. As such, we get all of the expected elements, from the archival footage to the overall tone. While the film was informative, it never really surprised or went the extra mile needed to really set itself apart. Nevertheless, history buffs, those interested in the Vietnam War or the vagaries of America’s international diplomatic policies should plenty of good stuff here. More than anything, Kennedy’s film helps to shed light on a chaotic, dark and terrible time in human history: it shows how oppression can dim but never truly extinguish the human pilot light…where there’s a will, there’s a way, no matter how slim.

If the point of history truly is to learn from the past and avoid the same mistakes in the future, may films like Last Days in Vietnam and their ilk continue to make it impossible for us to ever truly bury these terrible events. If we ever really need a reminder, let’s think about the thousands of refugees who were able to make it out…and the hundreds of thousands who didn’t.

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