FULL FRAME: 'Last Days in Vietnam’ shows chaotic exodus at end of war
The first big screening of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Thursday morning was Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam,” shown at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham.
An invited film to the four-day festival, “Last Days in Vietnam” is by American Experience Films, the PBS history series. A televised date has yet to be announced.
The film begins in Saigon, South Vietnam, in April 1975, with U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington narrating the footage with “the burning question: Who goes? And who gets left behind?”
Recent interviews with Herrington and other U.S. military, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and South Vietnamese military and civilians who were there give audiences a wide picture of those last days of the Vietnam War.
Frank Snepp, who was there as a CIA analyst, sets the political scene with the 1973 ceasefire, then President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and how “overnight everything changed.” North Vietnam violated the peace accord and South Vietnamese refugees fled Da Nang. There is extensive video footage of what was happening in Da Nang and later, Saigon, leading up to April 1975.
Binh Pho, a South Vietnamese college student at the time, described the scene. He was one of thousands who went to the U.S. Embassy on April 29, 1975, hoping to be evacuated.
“Last Days in Vietnam” also shows footage of President Gerald Ford asking for funding to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese whose lives would be endangered by the fall of South Vietnam. Congress turned him down, and the film also depicts U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Graham Martin’s reluctance to evacuate for months in hopes that South Vietnam would end up independent or autonomous. But then it was Martin, shown in footage from the day of the evacuation from the embassy, who stayed back so South Vietnamese refugees could flee first in helicopters.
The clock winds down on April 29, 1975, in “Last Days in Vietnam” with interviews from South Vietnamese who were there, from U.S. Marines who guarded the embassy, and from military officers. In NBC archival footage, it also shows those in the embassy compound who were promised evacuation, but were left behind.
That famous Associated Press photograph of a helicopter on top of a building was not the last transit from the embassy, but rather the top of the apartment building where a CIA officer lived. In the film, it is described as still representative of the chaos of the situation.
In the South China Sea, ships waited for Chinook helicopters to bring refugees. The USS Kirk was there to observe, not accept refugees. Through archival footage, an interview with its commanding officer and others, we see small helicopters – Hueys left at South Vietnamese bases -- approach the USS Kirk. With no room for more than one helicopter at a time, Hueys landed, people debarked, and the aircraft were pushed into the ocean. Then a twin-rotor Chinook showed up, piloted by a South Vietnamese officer and too large a helicopter to land on the USS Kirk.
The pilot’s son, Miki Nguyen, who was 6-years-old then, narrates what happened next, a story best learned by watching “Last Days in Vietnam.”
The documentary also includes interviews with South Vietnamese who were not able to leave during the exodus.
“Last Days in Vietnam” premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. For information about the film, visit www.lastdaysinvietnam.com. Full Frame continues through Sunday. Tickets and schedule at www.fullframefest.org.