VOD Review - Last Days in Vietnam

Iconic photo of evacuation by helicopter
of Vietnamese refugees after fall of Saigon
This documentary by Emmy-winner Rory Kennedy premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It was recognized by the National Board of Review. It was nominated for a WGA Award. It was then put up for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards. It got a limited theatrical release in September, but PBS decided to stream the film online between February 5 and February 7, 2015. It did so to provide people the opportunity to screen the movie prior to the Oscar telecast on Feb. 22.

The film basically tells the story of Operation Frequent Wind, which was the evacuation of the remaining Americans and native residents who became refugees from South Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The operation took place all in one day, the final day in April 1975 and it took place all at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. After President Nixon resigned, the Communists of North Vietnam broke the Paris Peace Accords and moved to invade and overthrow the city of Saigon through a lot of death and destruction.

The U.S. Ambassador at the time delayed action until the last, possible moment and when negotiations were obviously not going to work. Because he delayed so long, there wasn't a proper evacuation plan and any evacuation plan didn't account for the tons of Vietnamese dependents of remaining Americans and the thousands of refugees who rushed and crowded the Embassy. A backup plan had to be utilized that involved helicopters and aircraft carriers.

Director Rory Kennedy has culled together a wealth of great footage that much like the recent documentary Let the Fire Burn had almost minute-by-minute film and photos detailing the harrowing, 24-hour period. Kennedy also interviews many people who were actually there and bore witness to it all. One of the key figures is Stuart Herrington, an army captain who led the charge to break protocol and start evacuating the Vietnamese refugees along with the remaining Americans.

Kennedy skillfully crafts a thrilling tale. Given the setting, it's at times reminiscent of Argo or Season 4 of Homeland. It's obviously not a hostage situation but the Embassy in Saigon is threatened to various degrees. The depiction of the rescues, particularly one rescue, becomes almost a master class in how to assemble archival footage with interviews to forge a great storytelling sequence. The rescue in question involved a large Chinook helicopter trying to land on an aircraft carrier that can't handle it. The edited sequence was so well done that it was as thrilling as any action scene directed by James Cameron or Steven Spielberg.

Kennedy also captures the fear and the desperation in the people on the ground. It's also an interesting note in the story of the Vietnam War that has such empathy and heart. It's an aspect of war that's not about soldier in combat but operations that involve embracing people and saving them through ways that don't require shooting and killing.

Right now, the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Documentary is Citizenfour. This film might actually be third or fourth down, but it's currently my pick and my choice to take that prize. If you missed the free VOD on PBS.org, it's also available for a small price on Amazon and iTunes. PBS stations, as part of the program American Experience, will broadcast this movie on April 28 in honor of the 40th anniversary of these events.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.
Available on Amazon and iTunes.
Tuesday, April 28 at 9PM on PBS.


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