Last Days in Vietnam Not To Be Missed on American Experience

Courtesy WGBH Educational Foundation.

Courtesy WGBH Educational Foundation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the offspring of super achievers. If their moms, dads, grandparents or great grandparents are heavy hitters in politics, the arts, medicine, sports, the military or scholarly pursuits, these kids have quite an act to follow.

Independent filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, has certainly done her due diligence and carved a worthy niche for herself.  The Emmy Award winner and recent Academy Award® nominee has produced and directed a formidable body of work–more than 25 films–on hot button social issues.

Rory Kennedy’s latest feature-length documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, written by her husband, Mark Bailey, and Keven McAlester, and scored by Gary Lionelli, is a riveting masterwork that demands to be widely seen and discussed.  It stands toe-to-toe with the now-classic films produced during the Vietnam War era. With a theatrical run and Oscar nomination under its belt, Last Days in Vietnam debuts tonight, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, on the PBS American Experience series (9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region).  It’s a timely addition to this week’s PBS program line-up honoring the 40th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War in April 1975 and will be available free for streaming after its broadcast at PBS.org/americanexperience

A crowd of South Vietnamese refugees waiting to be evacuated. Photo courtesy Stuart Herrington.

A crowd of South Vietnamese refugees patiently waiting and trusting that they’ll be evacuated. Photo courtesy Stuart Herrington.

“The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in microcosm, because we didn’t get our act together,” says Stuart Herrington, retired Colonel, U.S. Army. “On the other hand, sometimes people have to rise to the occasion and do the things that need to be done, and in Saigon there was no shortage of people like that.”

Herrington was a Captain during the Vietnam War and served as an intelligence advisor to the South Vietnamese.  He is front and center in Last Days in Vietnam alongside an impressive line-up of American and South Vietnamese military men of good conscience, U.S. government officials, intelligence officers and South Vietnamese civilians who recall the chaotic final days of the war and the burning moral question that they faced: “Who goes and who gets left behind?” The story that unfolds from their vantage point is gripping.

Even if you watched this debacle play out on the evening news at the time, I guarantee that you will be hard-pressed not to be awe-struck by the powerful news and military footage compiled for this film.  Shot during the thick of the massive evacuation efforts, the footage documents activity never before shown on stateside evening newscasts.

Desperate South Vietnamese climb aboard barges in the port of Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese troops on April 28, 1975, the day of the fall of Saigon. Photo ©Nik Wheeler/ Corbis.

Desperate South Vietnamese climb aboard barges in the port of Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese troops on April 28, 1975, the day of the fall of Saigon. Photo ©Nik Wheeler/ Corbis.

As the North Vietnamese approached Saigon, relieved by the resignation of their mortal enemy, Richard M. Nixon, American officers and officials on-site had two choices: evacuate U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or defy orders and also save their South Vietnamese comrades, friends and families.

Richard Armitage joined the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Saigon in 1973 after three combat tours in Vietnam as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. Collaborating with South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do, Armitage planned to remove U.S. Navy ships before they fell into North Vietnamese hands. When Armitage discovered that the ships were filled with thousands of South Vietnamese refugees, he recalls his decision to ignore orders and do the right thing:  “I thought it was a lot easier to beg forgiveness than follow orders. So the decision was made, and they all went with us.”

LastVietnam87

Aboard the U.S.S. Kirk, crew members signal a Chinook copter to hover over their deck and drop its passengers. The chopper was too heavy to land on deck. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS KIRK Association.

One of the more prolonged and moving segments in Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the challenges faced by the U.S Naval officers and crew on board the U.S.S. Kirk. Part of the fleet sent to evacuate Americans only, the crew and the ship–“with its single, tiny helipad”–was ill-equipped to handle the endless stream of helicopters attempting to land on the American destroyer.  The choppers were piloted by South Vietnamese airmen fleeing for their lives with their families and friends.

A youthful South Vietnamese man, who was six years old at the time, vividly remembers the day his dad, a South Vietnamese pilot, skillfully catapulted his young family onto the U.S.S. Kirk from a Chinook chopper hovering above.  It was too large to land on the ship. Location footage and recollections from the Kirk’s captain and commanding officer bear witness to the pilot’s amazing aeronautical feat and others performed by the Kirk’s crew.  

Crew members push a helicopter off a landing platform of the U.S.S. Kirk to clear room for more helicopters dropping off refugees. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS Kirk Association.

Crew members push a helicopter off a landing platform of the U.S.S. Kirk to clear the deck for more helicopters dropping off refugees. Photo courtesy Craig Compiano/USS KIRK Association.

This is the stuff of true heroism and Last Days in Vietnam is a testament to their bravery, ingenuity and humanity in the face of a war gone horribly, shamefully wrong.

What comes across here are the heartfelt efforts of by-the-book military men, U.S. Intelligence officers and staffers who risked life and limb and faced career suicide to run unsanctioned, seat of-the-pants operations to save and evacuate as many South Vietnamese as they could, by land, sea and air.  The way they did it is astounding; and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they faced, sometimes overcame … and sometimes didn’t … will keep you on the edge of your seat and also break your heart.

In conjunction with the film, American Experience is launching a national outreach campaign inviting Vietnamese Americans and veterans to share their experiences.  “We knew there were so many more stories–of those who were evacuated and those who were left behind but who eventually made their way to the U.S.–and we wanted to create a platform to share, preserve, and honor their experiences,” says Mark Samels, American Experience Executive Producer. These stories will constitute the First Days Story Project at http://www.pbs.org/firstdays to be archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Last Days in Vietnam debuts tonight, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, on the PBS series American Experience, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region). It is available for rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, as well as through many cable video-on-demand services. Following the PBS station broadcast, the film will be available for streaming free at PBS.org/americanexperience  The DVD will also be sold on the PBS Website and at other retail outlets. –Judith Trojan

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About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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4 Responses to Last Days in Vietnam Not To Be Missed on American Experience

  1. Carol Cummings says:

    Thanks, Judy. This looks really interesting. I tried to post your review of Facebook. Not sure if I managed it or not. John, who served in Vietnam Nam thinks it looks interesting too. Carol

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    • Judith Trojan says:

      Thank you, Carol. If you missed the first airdate on PBS, you can watch it on-line at PBS for free. The link for streaming is at the beginning and end of my article. I also list other ways to access it at the end of my article. It’s a powerful film.

      Like

  2. David Reich says:

    Great writeup Judy. I was planning to watch this; now I won’t miss it.

    Like

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