If you were of draft age in 1975, you might be excused for not feeling more than an abstract sadness for the South Vietnamese that were left behind when American troops left that country as Saigon fell. More likely, though, there were mixed emotions: great relief that this stupid war was over (and you would not have to go fight it) and shame that your country had not only misrepresented what it was doing in Indochina but failed at its mission. Meanwhile, 3.1 million people died violently. There was little left over for the faraway people on the nightly news.
As you might imagine, this fine, engaging documentary is meant to make us feel more for those who were stranded in the chaotic withdrawal — Vietnamese who had worked with or for American forces and (at the very least) spent subsequent years in reeducation camps. Rory Kennedy’s film does de-desensitize us, but what’s even better is that this profusely illustrative doc also makes some sense of the tragic farce. Why, for instance, when the peace treaties were signed in 1973, did it take two years for the North to invade and the debacle to come down on all of our heads? Kennedy believes they didn’t move sooner because they feared Nixon (they thought he was a madman, imagine) and that Watergate set them free. The film also devotes a lot of time examining the persona of U.S. ambassador Graham Martin, whose politics, temperament, and personal stake (his only son was killed there) delayed a more sensible withdrawal. There were plans in place.
At the very least, we learn how disconnected the country’s fate was from even Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger and how the disaster blossomed in those disconnections. We meet a number of unexpected heroes, too.
But Kennedy’s real triumph is showing us that world and not just chronicling it: refugee-crowded ships, helicopter escapes that defy imagination, and an army of characters who never got acknowledged in those bad old days. We meet people who acted compassionately. Most of all, we see yet another war entered in hubris and abandoned in shame