Rory Kennedy's Oscar-Nominated 'Last Days in Vietnam' Finds Some Nobility Amid the Ruins

A U.S. Marine helicopter loads passengers during the Vietnam War. The film "Last Days in Vietnam" explores the legacy of the war and the lives affected. Juan Valdez

It is one of the iconic images of the Vietnam war: a line of desperate citizens climbing to the top of a building to board one of the last American helicopters leaving before the North Vietnamese invade Saigon. Though most remember it as a photograph of the U.S. Embassy, it was actually a neighboring building, and most of the men and women were CIA station personnel, not civilians, "but it indicated to what extent chaos had descended on this entire operation," says Frank Snepp, a CIA analyst who was there that day. Even our shared memories of the Vietnam War are wrong.

Snepp's is one of a chorus of voices describing the action that took place in South Vietnam's capital during the war's last days in Rory Kennedy's Oscar-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam (to be aired on PBS's American Experience April 28, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon). "When we think about Vietnam, it's not a bright shining moment in our past," says Kennedy (echoing the title of one of the best books about that war's ignobility, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie). What is remarkable about her film is that she finds nobility in the actions of many Americans and their allies, who risked their careers (if not their lives) to help thousands of South Vietnamese we were prepared to abandon.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, and Snepp recalls Americans at the embassy toasting the agreement with bloody marys (a particularly Graham Greene detail). "But the Paris Peace Accords were a masterpiece of ambiguity," says Snepp, and after President Nixon resigned in 1974, that ambiguity gave birth to chaos. In March 1975 the North invaded the South, causing widespread panic—and with good reason. As the film reminds us, the Communists could be unforgiving, even burying their enemies alive.

"The South was responsible for certain atrocities as well," says Kennedy, whose father, Senator Robert Kennedy, became a strong opponent of the war before he was assassinated. "I think it really speaks to the horror of war in general. No matter which side had won or lost I think there would have been horrors and repercussions."

Vietnamese people wait for U.S. Marines to evacuate them as the war neared its end. Stuart Herrington

After the city of Da Nang fell at the beginning of April, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese began racing toward Saigon with 150,000 North Vietnamese troops in pursuit. It was estimated that as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese who had helped Americans were now in danger, everyone from soldiers to dry cleaners; but back in the States the appetite for rescue, for any further involvement really, was tepid at best. The newly minted president, Gerald Ford, asked Congress for $722 million in emergency military assistance, but, after Watergate and the long fiasco of America's involvement in Vietnam, no one wanted to help the military.

"If billions and billions didn't make a difference, how could $722 million save the day?" Representative Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) said, speaking for the majority of Congress. Ford was deeply disappointed, and the refusal to fund a rescue effort reinforced the perception that the U.S. was unwilling to help those who had helped it.

"One of the lessons I learned making this film was that by April 1975, there were very few good options available to the U.S. government," says Kennedy. "I think even if we had passed the $722 million it would have made a dent, and it would have been meaningful to individuals, and we could have had a more methodical evacuation policy in place so that we were targeting the people who were at greatest risk, who had given the most to the U.S. But I don't think it would have changed the course of events at that point."

Back in Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin was in a different kind of denial. Martin, who died in 1990, was a career diplomat and one of the more tragic figures in Kennedy's tale. As Snepp and others begged him to begin making plans for evacuation, Martin said, "I won't have this negative talk." Much of the chaos of the final 24 hours—the frenzy of document shredding and U.S. Marines burning a million dollars in American currency—was a direct consequence of his paralysis, though as a sympathetic Army colonel points out, the war for him was personal.

"This was an ambassador who had lost his only son in combat in Vietnam," says U.S. Army Colonel Stuart Herrington. "One becomes pretty invested in that country." To his credit, the ambassador stayed until he was forced to leave in one of the last choppers taking evacuees to the aircraft carrier USS Kirk, and he was devastated to have to leave 420 Vietnamese whom he promised would get out. Heroic and deluded, Martin is a symbol for the U.S.'s approach to the war itself.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gives a report to President Ford on the evacuation of Saigon. David Hume Kennerly

We hear from those who did not make it, South Vietnamese who fought with the Americans. (Many were tortured, imprisoned or sent to "re-education" camps, before finally emigrating to the U.S.) "Did the right mix of people get out? Who says if these are the people who deserved to get out?" asks Herrington. "At the embassy a lot of people who got out happened to be good wall jumpers."

You could say that history is written by good wall jumpers, that those with the capacity to survive are the ones left to tell the tale, or at least live another day. But Last Days in Vietnam is not just about natural selection; among the more surprising heroes on the U.S. side is former U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage, then a Special Forces advisor in Vietnam. "I could understand and tell jokes in Vietnamese, which eventually means you can dream in Vietnamese," he says on camera. His job in those final days was destroying boats the North Vietnamese could use, but despite direct orders to the contrary, Armitage took it upon himself to help rescue tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, shepherding them onto boats that would join the American fleet offshore in the South China Sea.

"I thought it was a lot easier to beg forgiveness than get permission," he says. "The decision was made and they all went with us" as part of a flotilla that headed for the Philippines.

See an exclusive clip from the film:

Watch this exclusive clip of the new documentary Last Days in Vietnam from American Experience. And check back for a link to our story on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Posted by Newsweek on Friday, 17 April 2015

When I tell Kennedy that this episode sheds a new light on my image of Armitage, best known for serving Colin Powell in the buildup to the Iraq War and outing CIA operative Valerie Plame, she exclaims, "Me too! Get in line.

"I got an email from his son a few months after the film had been shown in the Washington, D.C., area," she says. "He thanked me for making the film and sharing the story [about his father] and he said he had never heard it before."

The film's most dramatic footage was shot on the deck of the USS Kirk that day. Miki Nguyen was 6 years old when his father, Ba Nguyen, loaded a twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter with his family and other civilians, only to be waved off when he approached the ship. The Chinook was too big to land on the carrier, so the Kirk's commander ordered sailors to stand beneath the hovering craft while those aboard dropped children and finally jumped themselves, their fall broken by the crewman. Nguyen's father then flew the Chinook over the water and removed his flight suit while keeping it aloft ("like a Houdini," says one eyewitness) before jumping free as the massive bird crashed into the ocean.

"He didn't own a thing but his underwear when he finally came aboard the ship," says Nguyen.

Kennedy, whose previous films include 2007's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, initially feared there would be no new tales to tell when it came to the fall of Saigon—until her research led her to the tales of heroism that ground the movie. "The thing my films have in common is trying to understand the humanity behind complex issues," she says. "My brother Chris says I make two types of film: depressing and really depressing. That could be another way to frame it. I actually find them quite hopeful."

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy. Bettmann/Corbis/AP

Last Days in Vietnam will make anyone who reads the news think of other U.S. conflicts and allies we have left behind in other countries. "I do appreciate it when audiences leave the film and make certain connections with Afghanistan and Iraq, or appreciate the human cost of war," she says. "Today kids in college don't study Vietnam, which is shocking to me. They're lucky to learn it over the course of one day. When I was younger I had a whole course on Vietnam."

Her course began earlier than most. Her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, helped get America into that quagmire, of course; she was in her mother's womb when her father was killed, learning about his anti-war efforts long after the fact. Among the more haunting images of her film are the empty boots and abandoned uniforms of the South Vietnamese soldiers, butLast Days in Vietnam is not a downer.

"The film doesn't shy away from the horror of this war, the fact that we abandoned our allies," says Kennedy. "And the sadness and the human repercussions of that. But within that context it also celebrates these people who in the face of danger did the right thing. People can leave the film being proud of these Americans, even if you're not proud of American policy."