October 16, 2014

Genuine History, Genuine Heroism

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There is no such thing as a good war, but good people fight in the worst of them. The Vietnam War has never been mistaken for one of the good ones — not then and not now. Yet it is easy to conflate the war’s negative legacies, which include My Lai, Agent Orange and, of course, our country’s defeat, with the worth, or lack thereof, of those who served. Last Days in Vietnam, a clear-eyed and unusually gripping documentary opening at Cinemapolis today, makes the case for the American forces who risked tribunals, not to mention their own lives, in order to evacuate as many South Vietnamese civilians as possible on those last two chaotic days of April 1975.

The film, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, is a rather straightforward talking heads affair, where you don’t even have time to fumble with a stopwatch before, blah, there’s Kissinger grumbling before his millionth camera. Good thing the film gets him out of the way early on so it can spend the rest of the time with the boots who were on the ground of Saigon when it fell. These men, like Army Colonel Stuart Herrington and Republic of Vietnam Navy Captain Kiem Do, recount the events of the evacuation and little more, which is all it takes for an enlightening narrative of morality during those most liminal hours between war and peace.

Over 16mm footage of the frantic city and maps animating the North Vietnamese Army’s push through Da Nang and toward Saigon, voices of the veterans interviewed frame their “terrible moral dilemma” in stark terms. Would Nixon boost U.S. air power to save them? Could Americans save anyone other than their own? Could they even do that? A target of derision for the first third of this 98-minute film is Graham Martin, the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, who was seen as “skittish” and aloof of the imminent defeat, and very real physical peril, his people would soon suffer.

As a sign of Last Days in Vietnam’s disinterest in demonizing, with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, especially against those dead and not present to defend themselves, Ambassador Martin develops a dimension or two. We learn that he lost his only son in the war, which is cause for one acquaintance to observe, “One becomes pretty invested in the country.”

Right before Operation Frequent Wind — the airlift of 7700 Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. embassy and other points in Saigon, and the specific focus of this film — commenced, Martin pointed to an old tamarind tree in the embassy’s parking lot and said it was “as steadfast as America’s commitment to Vietnam.” The irony that the tree had to be razed to allow helicopters to land and Americans to flee was not lost on him, since he at first stubbornly refused. But obviously he changed his mind, and not just about one tree: One colleague says, “The evacuation of Vietnamese [as opposed to only Americans] happened because Graham Martin wanted it to happen.”

Ambassador Martin bucked orders from the White House in order to see that those who aided America would escape persecution, and he did so with a valiant and orderly cache of soldiers, pilots and sailors committed to this humanitarian cause. The film tells the oral history with more punch than words here might, but it is imperative to mention the wound Colonel Herrington reopens when arriving at the part of the story where they left behind 420 civilians at the embassy without so much as a goodbye. Like Oskar’s final words in Schindler’s List, Herrington’s remorse for “so serious and deep a betrayal” cuts deep and contrasts the film’s narrative of success against all the loss and failure surrounding.

Last Days in Vietnam demands little from the viewer aside from a willingness to learn. If that sounds in the least bit like eating your vegetables, consider the entertainment value of Argo, apply almost all of that to this film, and then remember that this one is a documentary produced for PBS. So, basically: It’s better than you might think. It unfolds a complicated story in chronological order without much effort figuring out what it all ‘meant,’ and so makes it simple. But that simplicity suits these events well, since unthinking heroism is the only genuine kind.