Well, this is horrifying. I’ve never quite understood just what the hell the U.S. thought it was doing in Vietnam — I know, I know: something about peeing our collective pants over commies — and I knew it ended badly. But I never realized before Last Days in Vietnam, part of PBS’s documentary series American Experience, just how very badly it ended, particularly for the people of Saigon who had helped the Americans there. Of course I’d seen that famous photo of the helicopter on the roof of the U.S. embassy — which wasn’t, in fact, the U.S. embassy, as explained here — but I never really got why people were escaping at the last minute like that. (Not even after Miss Saigon!)
Now, filmmaker Rory Kennedy explains it all, pulling together an incredible collection of historical footage and new interviews to paint a picture of ordinary people with human consciences defying their orders and the law to do the right thing when the bureaucracy they were servants of told them to do the wrong thing. Basically, this: In April 1975, the North Vietnamese were on their apparently unstoppable way to Saigon, and the Americans had orders to evacuate, and never mind getting their families out (many American men had married and/or had kids with Vietnamese women), or getting out the South Vietnamese who had worked with them. But the North Vietnamese were executing anyone and everyone they took a dislike to, civilian or not. So some Americans set up “makeshift airlifts” and “underground railroads” in order to get as many people out as possible. Plenty were still left behind.
Some of the historical footage Kennedy digs up is stuff I’d never seen before, and downright chilling (like people rushing a jet airliner as it’s taking off). Some of it is just plain fucking insane (like sailors on an aircraft carrier pushing perfectly good helicopters off the side into the drink to make room for more to land). All of it is positively apocalyptic in a way that no other movie about Vietnam has managed to be before. But mostly, Last Days in Vietnam is a magnificent portrait of how the prescribed order breaks down — and rightly so — when it no longer serves human need, and a new one rises to take its place.