Contextualizing is everything. And that’s particularly true of Last Days in Vietnam, where the odious things Americans did there weigh down the ostensible heroics shown in our exiting the country.
By Gerald Peary
The mushy reviews of Last Days in Vietnam (a 94% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating) are extraordinarily similar. They praise filmmaker Rory Kennedy for documenting a forgotten moment of American history, the chaotic days in 1975 when the US raced to leave Saigon and South Vietnam steps ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese Army. And the critics are pumped up with pride at the stories Kennedy has uncovered of brave and noble American soldiers and a few anti-establishment American diplomats who helped evacuate many South Vietnamese–by boat, plane, and helicopter–who presumably would be enslaved or murdered by the Communist North Vietnamese.
What hardly anyone observed is that Kennedy, daughter of peacenik Robert Kennedy, is offering a flag-waving whitewash of the war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese are characterized, with no exceptions, as Isis-like warriors murdering all their opposition on the way from Hanoi to Saigon. And, after entering Saigon, annhilating those who oppose them or sending their enemies to re-education camps. The South Vietnamese? This amazed me: there is not any mention of the much-documented corruption of the various puppet governments, and of the South Vietnamese army as a coercive instrument of torture and killings. Each South Vietnamese ex-soldier who is interviewed is allowed to tell his shiny story, including a high-ranking officer. There’s no blood attached to any of them.
In an interview, Kennedy explained that not a single Vietnamese living in Vietnam would talk to her for the film, in fear of the government. Not one? Sorry, but that’s terrible reporting. As a result, each Vietnamese on camera is someone living today in the United States, who has fled his native country. Talk about imbalance and one-sidedness!
Every American soldier interviewed in the movie is a decent humanist who’d been in Saigon because of his deep concern for the Vietnamese people. Some there learned to speak Vietnamese, others had Vietnamese families. The only CIA person on camera is a whistleblower, another great guy who did his best for the Vietnamese. And most telling is the guest appearance of Henry Kissinger, 91, repeating, yet again, his sad story of how the American Congress refused President Ford’s plea for additional funds in Vietnam, leaving those in Saigon dangling.
Where in this documentary are the anti-war voices of those who were American soldiers in Vietnam and became disillusioned by the terrible things we did there? Who in this film speaks of our random bombing of North Vietnam? Of the massacre at My Lai? And for the CIA, where is mention of the heinous tortures of South Vietnamese under CIA director William Colby? As for Kissinger, it’s madly frustrating to see his self-serving rhetoric go completely unchallenged. Where are you, Errol Morris, when needed? Instead, the world’s number one war criminal at large (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, etc.) is a welcome and honored guest to this documentary commissioned by PBS’s American Experience.
Am I being too hard on Last Days in Vietnam? This armchair left-liberal suddenly lifted up, almost 45 years later, by my anti-War protestations? Many would argue that Kennedy’s film has a narrow focus, that all that bad stuff I’m bringing up about what we did in Vietnam is irrelevant. Here’s my answer: you could make a documentary about the poor German soldiers caught in the dire Russian winters of 1942-1945, about how heroic their struggles for survival. Of course, that wouldn’t fly. These soldiers need to be connected to Hitler and Auschwitz. Contextualizing is everything. And that’s true also of Last Days in Vietnam, where the odious things we did there weigh down the ostensible heroics shown in our exiting the country.
Finally, let me praise two reviews of the film which had the sense to challenge Kennedy’s perspective. Steve MacFarlane in Slate was disturbed by Kissinger being taken at his dubious word, and criticized “the documentary’s political sheepishness” and its “submission in the face of power.” And Boston’s own Sean Burns, writing in Movie Magazine, noted the passivity of the filmmaking, “absent any outrage or blame.” Burns complained that Last Days in Vietnam “would rather celebrate individual acts of valor than question the larger, rotten context that made them regrettably necessary.”
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess