Goodnight Saigon: Last Days in Vietnam

08/27/2014 4:00 AM |

Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy

Director Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam works effectively on a minute-to-minute basis, but when one examines it as a whole, the larger context seems to be missing. Her film concentrates on the airlift of South Vietnamese refugees in 1975, as the Vietcong quickly took over Saigon. These men and women, many of whom had worked for the US and faced a brutal stint in “reeducation” camps if left behind, depended on the American government for their safety, yet the US proved remarkably cavalier about them at first. It took the heroic efforts of a few soldiers to get the South Vietnamese out. Clearly, the US had no real exit strategy for Vietnam and no sense of how bad things might get for the people who’d helped them if the Vietcong took possession of the whole country. Sound familiar?

Kennedy’s film doesn’t lack contemporary relevance, although Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t push it either—there are no explicit references to Iraq or Afghanistan. As storytelling, its depiction of the airlift, relying heavily on 16mm footage shot in 1975 and structured hour-by-hour, is quite gripping. Kennedy’s montage of archival footage and present-day interviews—including Vietnamese people, who tend to get left out of American films about the war in their own country—is judicious. However, the film, produced by PBS’s American Experience series, does feel like a TV program, never venturing beyond documentary conventions—its most outré touches are computer-animated maps of Saigon.

A larger problem is that the war’s bigger picture gets lost. Granted, Last Days in Vietnam is only 100 minutes long and only attempts to address one aspect of the Vietnam War. Even so, it’s disappointing that it never grapples with the moral and political justifications for the war itself or the fact that the South Vietnamese government was hardly saintly. Kennedy gets access to interview Henry Kissinger but asks him a very timid and limited set of questions. A political insider herself (she’s RFK’s youngest daughter), Kennedy has made a middle-of-the-road film that won’t challenge anyone’s thinking about the Vietnam War, whether they’re liberal or conservative. She’s managed something nearly impossible: giving the war a happy ending.

Opens September 5