“Last Days in Vietnam” may be a film about events that happened nearly 40 years ago, but it was also one of the timeliest movies to show on Thursday’s first full day of screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Director Rory Kennedy’s documentary is an eye-opening and unexpectedly moving chronicle of the chaotic evacuation of Americans and friendly Vietnamese from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon as North Vietnamese troops prepared to take the city in April 1975. And it screened at LAFF on a day when three planeloads of Americans were being airlifted out of a Baghdad suburb as Sunni insurgents continued to take territory in northern Iraq, where U.S. troops once fought.
While direct comparisons are problematic, the idea that Americans were being airlifted out of an area recently vacated by U.S. troops found unavoidable resonance with both the left and right.
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore, for instance, offered two tweets on Thursday, both of which came just as “Last Days in Vietnam” was screening at LAFF:
BREAKING: Americans rapidly being evacuated as insurgents move on Saigon. Oops, sorry — Baghdad. #summerrerun
How many days til we c Blackhawks on top our BILLION-dollar Iraq embassy hurriedly cramming in as many as possible to fly the F outta there?
And at the conservative National Review Online, Jay Nordlinger headlined a piece “Vietnam, Again, and Again,” and concluded, “Today, Iraq, tomorrow, Afghanistan. Our sacrifices — like those in Vietnam — will have been in vain, I’m afraid.”
“I see absolute similarities between Iraq and Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy told TheWrap on Friday. “Like Vietnam, you don’t have the ground troops there anymore, the insurgents are coming in and there’s not a lot of resistance.
“In Vietnam, when they got to this point, there were very few options available, and this country didn’t have the political will to go back into the war,” added Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and a filmmaker whose work includes “A Boy’s Life,” the Emmy-winning “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” and the Emmy-nominated and Oscar-shortlisted “Ethel.”
Kennedy didn’t begin to make “Last Days in Vietnam” because of any current resonance — instead, she said, she initially resisted the idea of making a doc about a subject she thought had been thoroughly covered.
“I thought that I knew a lot about it, but really I just knew the skeleton of the story,” she said. “We’re familiar with the iconic image of the helicopter on top of what people thought was the Embassy [at top]. But I found that very few people understood what it was like at the time, and why and how it fell so quickly. I found it fascinating, and I think that 40 years later we have a chance to unpack it and learn from it.”
The real lesson, she added, is one that was not learned in Iraq. “Really, the question is, when you get into a war, what is the exit strategy?” she said. “That’s when you actually have options, and can think it through in a constructive manner. When you get to this end point, it’s very hard.
“If you don’t do anything, the insurgents take over and can potentially spread through the region. But if you go back in there with a strong military force, then what? If we stop this insurgency and withdraw again, who’s to say there’s not going to be another? What will stop them from coming again?”
Kennedy, a member of one of the most prominent Democratic families of the last century, said the blame for the Iraq problem lies squarely with the administration in power when the U.S. invaded the country in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The question 12 years ago for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney was, ‘What is the exit strategy here?'” she said. “And they refused to answer. That is irresponsible leadership. That’s the problem, and the tragedy of it all.”
Kennedy’s film is about a debacle marked with acts of kindness — about the lengths to which some soldiers and embassy workers went to get the Americans’ Vietnamese family, friends and collaborators out of a country where they’d be facing imprisonment or death.
The evacuation of Saigon, former U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Harrington said at the screening, was “Vietnam in a microcosm: promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together …. “
He added, “In times of terrible, terrible tragedy, when policy has failed and the military has failed, what else is there? … People all over the city of Saigon did something.”
Harrington helped organize an unsanctioned, “black-ops” evacuation effort, in part because the U.S. ambassador stubbornly refused to plan for or even consider the possibility that the city would fall to the North Vietnamese. He is one of the heroes of “Last Days in Vietnam” — people, said Kennedy, who could not have gotten their due amid the politically-charged wreckage of Vietnam.
“In the immediate aftermath of the war,” she said, “there was no opportunity in our country to have heroes.”
“Last Days in Vietnam” will receive a theatrical release in September and will air on PBS’s “American Experience” next April.