The Malibu Film Society (MFS) screened the new documentary “Last Days in Vietnam” to a sold-out audience Saturday, followed by a question and answer session with director/producer Rory Kennedy and husband, screenwriter Mark Bailey. The 98-minute film focuses on what led up to the final 24 hours the U.S. spent in South Vietnam before abandoning Saigon to communist forces in 1975.
Telling the story as it’s never been told before, the filmmakers interviewed U.S. and Vietnamese military and civilians about their first-hand experiences 40 years ago. In the process, they discovered a treasure trove of previously undeveloped film footage of events on the USS Kirk, which helped lead thousands of refugees out of Saigon.
“It’s an inherently exciting story, a dramatic story of an evacuation–you have to get people out and the bad guys are coming,” Bailey said.
“I think we all felt like the men who sacrificed to save the lives of these Vietnamese was the story that hadn’t been told,” Kennedy said. “Understanding the events as they happened, what led to the chaos at the end, and the story of these heroic people who went against U.S. policy to do the right thing—it’s a part of our collective history that hasn’t been told.”
Kennedy hopes one of the takeaways from the film is that, “When you make a decision to go into a war, [your country’s involvement] doesn’t end when the war ends. These lessons are valuable even today as we’re making decisions about Syria and Iraq.”
“The documentary tells a story within the larger context of a failed war and a failed policy.”
Although the war officially ended in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, the U.S. maintained a military presence and an Embassy in Saigon.
In 1974, the Vietcong, who’d been terrified of President Nixon, were emboldened by his sudden departure from office. They immediately violated the peace agreement by brutally invading the south, conquering village after village, and murdering thousands suspected of helping the Americans.
The South Vietnamese had only limited resources to fight back, and U.S. officials realized it would just be a matter of time before Saigon fell, putting thousands of Vietnamese working for the U.S. at risk.
With most Americans sick of the Vietnam War, President Ford was unable to secure funding from Congress to evacuate nearly 200,000 Vietnamese. The film shows a U.S. ambassador in denial about the coming danger. Various U.S. military and intelligence officers independently began their own “black ops” to get the Vietnamese out of the country.
In previously untold stories of courage, they arranged secret transports aboard boats, helicopters and planes beginning months before Saigon actually fell, at great personal risk to their own careers.
Several of these officers appear in the documentary, and it’s clear that even today, 40 years later, many still feel deep regret, sadness and guilt over not being able to save everyone by the time Saigon fell.
“Seven to nine guys [interviewed] in the film saw it for the first time [at the Sundance Film Festival in January], and many were tearful,” Kennedy said. “It was profound seeing these manly men cry. One of the men, Stuart Harrington, said he had lived his life every day afraid he’d run into one of the 450 [Vietnamese abandoned at the U.S. Embassy after the fall of Saigon].”
Bailey said that filmmaking “works nicely” between him and Rory because they perform different tasks. While she’s out in the field doing interviews and collecting information, he’s back in the editing room, “working with the footage, figuring out the structure.”
“You’re making a lot of choices, as with all documentaries, trying to keep the tension and tell the history.”
Kennedy said another part of the story is the “vibrant and robust Vietnamese community that now exists in the U.S. as a result of the evacuations…which seems very excited about this story being told.” “Last Days” was produced for American Experience, PBS’ flagship history series.
Malibu resident Rory Kennedy has produced/directed over 35 documentaries, receiving numerous Emmy nominations. She is the mother of three children and daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.