During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbles. The United States has only a skeleton crew of diplomats and military operatives still in the country. As Communist victory becomes inevitable and the U.S. readies to withdraw, some Americans begin to consider the certain imprisonment and possible death of their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends. Meanwhile, the prospect of an official evacuation of South Vietnamese becomes terminally delayed by Congressional gridlock and the inexplicably optimistic U.S. Ambassador.
With the clock ticking and the city under fire, a number of heroic Americans take matters into their own hands, engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations in a desperate effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible.
I have to be honest with you, despite the fact that I'm both a history and movie buff, I wasn't very excited about sitting through yet another movie devoted to the Vietnam War. It's not that I don't feel it's an important topic to examine, but rather that after all the movies (both fictional and factual) made over the past several decades on the topic, there wasn't a whole lot left to say. Thankfully, director Rory Kennedy (the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy) finds a subject mater that hasn't been covered to death: the fall of Saigon in 1975 and, more specifically, the evacuation of both Americans and South Vietnamese that took place.
Kennedy's movie doesn't break any new ground in the style in which it is told. It's another 'talking heads' documentary whose story is enhanced through actual footage from the time period, including both archival newscast footage and still photographs. There's also some exclusive 8mm footage of events that Kennedy was able to get her hands on and (I believe) is shown here for the very first time. She's also rounded up a number of interviewees that were actually part of the events – both Americans and Vietnamese alike. Most of their names won't be recognized by viewers, except one: Kennedy was able to get former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to participate.
The movie starts off by setting up the premise for the rest of the film. The Paris Peace Accords are signed in 1973, which essentially end the hostilities in Vietnam. As part of the agreement, we learn, President Nixon has told the North Vietnamese that any act of aggression will result in retaliation by the United States. Taking Nixon for his word, North Vietnam makes no moves against its southern counterpart. However, when Nixon is forced to resign the Presidency in 1974, all bets seem to be off. The North Vietnamese army begins an assault on South Vietnam and it isn't long before they have Saigon, South Vietnam's capital and the location of the American Embassy, surrounded. President Gerald Ford attempts to get support from a war-weary Congress, but his efforts are rejected. So, instead, the President has to come up with an exit strategy to get the Americans – and as many South Vietnamese that they can take with them – out of the country.
There are a lot of heroes (and a few villains) in 'Last Days in Vietnam', but one of the most interesting men viewers will learn about is the United States' Ambassador to Vietnam, Graham Martin. Early in the movie, we learn how stubborn Martin is about any suggestion of evacuation of the embassy, as he hinders potential early evacuation attempts, not wanting to admit that the 'writing is on the wall' when it comes to the North Vietnamese taking control of the city. However, later in the film, when the evacuation is taking place, Martin takes on a heroic role – refusing to be evacuated from the embassy until they can fly as many South Vietnamese to safety as possible.
Heroics aren't limited to the Amercians, either. Late in the movie we learn of a Vietnamese pilot who evacuates his family in a Chinook, only to find himself hovering out at sea with an almost-empty fuel tank over an American ship that is too small for him to possibly land on. Instead, he lowers the aircraft close enough that his family can jump to safety, then manages to ditch the craft in the ocean while he dives into the water. It's the kind of thing one wouldn't believe in a dramatic movie, yet it happened in real life and the son (who is now an American citizen) of that heroic pilot is here to tell his story.
Despite enjoying the movie, 'Last Days of Vietnam' is one of those documentaries most are going to be satisfied seeing just once – or twice, since this Blu-ray release also includes a longer (about 20 extra minutes) cut of the film. With that in mind, in addition to the fact that PBS has included no bonus materials on either of these discs, 'Last Days in Vietnam' lands firmly in the rental category.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Last Days in Vietnam' evacuates onto Blu-ray on a pair of 25GB single-layer discs, one containing the 100-minute theatrical version of the film, and the other containing an extended 120-minute version. The discs are housed inside a standard Elite keepcase, with a single insert that advertises other PBS releases and their online store. Neither disc is front-loaded with trailers, and the main menu consists of a montage of scenes from the movie, with menu selections running down the left side of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A-locked.
Please Note: For whatever reason, the software I normally use to capture screenshots of Blu-rays would not recognize either of these 25GB discs. Therefore, the images accompanying this review are promotional images and do not reflect the actual Blu-ray transfer.
Both versions of the movie are presented in 1080i, and feature a combination of new 'talking head' shots, archival video, and still photography. While the new interview footage is fairly sharp (and shot digitally), the archival video is a mixed bag, depending on the source material. Most of the video has been zoomed in on to fill the 1.78:1 ratio, but other bits of video – particularly broadcast news footage – has been kept full-frame. While the presentation is watchable enough, because so much of the movie relies on aged footage, there's not a whole lot of Blu-ray 'pop' here, and probably not a whole lot of difference between this high-def version of the movie and what you'd get on DVD.
'Last Days in Vietnam' is presented with a lossy English 5.1 Dolby Digital track that offers very little in terms of aural excitement, but is certainly more than enough for this presentation, which does little beyond interviews, narration, and the musical score (by Gary Lionelli). The rear speakers here are used almost exclusively to enhance the music, and little else. Dialogue and narration are all up-front, and split evenly between the front speakers. While there isn't anything particularly impressive about this track, it's an adequate one, with everything nicely balanced and no problems with popping or hissing, even during the archival footage.
While the English 5.1 track is the only audio option, subtitles are available in English.
Other than the fact that this release includes a second Blu-ray containing a longer cut of the movie, there are no bonus materials on this release.
Assuming you're not old enough to remember this bit of history (or, frankly, even if you are), 'Last Days in Vietnam' provides an engaging look at the fall of Saigon and how the Americans helped thousands of South Vietnamese escape – and, sadly, had to leave many behind. This isn't a documentary that calls for multiple viewings, but it's worth checking out. Give it a rent.