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Oscar-Nominated Documentary Revisits Dark 'Last Days in Vietnam'

15 Apr, 2015 By: Stephanie Prange

It’s been 40 years since the United States exited Vietnam, and perhaps the primary recollection many have of that event is the iconic shot of refugees desperately climbing into a helicopter, presumably from the top of the American embassy in Saigon.

But many have presumed wrong; that iconic shot actually was taken blocks away from the embassy.

“[That image] is what I think many people know about the final days of the way we left, and even that we are getting incorrect,” said director-producer Rory Kennedy.

That’s just one of many surprising revelations in Last Days in Vietnam, an Academy Award-nominated documentary due April 28 on Blu-ray Disc ($29.99) and DVD ($24.99) from PBS Distribution. Both formats include the Academy Award-nominated theatrical cut, as well as the “American Experience” extended broadcast version (airing April 28). The theatrical cut will also be available for digital download.

At a recent conference for young people, Kennedy asked how many had studied Vietnam, and few raised their hands.

“I don’t think this is a moment we are focusing on and studying as a country,” she said. “I think it is because we lost, frankly.”

That, in part, may be why it has taken four decades to unveil the whole story of the U.S. exit.

“In the immediate aftermath of the war, as a country we wanted to move on,” Kennedy said. “In the immediate aftermath, there were such strong emotions it was hard to get a balanced perspective.”

But 40 years later, participants were able to offer a more clear-eyed accounting of painful events, she said. Also, after only four decades, “most of the people were alive and coherent and able to relate their stories,” she said.

The documentary combined archival footage — some recently discovered — as well as interviews with those who experienced the departure from Vietnam and with key political players, including then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger initially said no to Kennedy’s request to participate.

“I kept persisting,” Kennedy said. “He came around. He has not come across very well in the Vietnam War. … [But] he got how important this story was.”

The documentary also includes the stories of American servicemen and Vietnamese on the ground, in the air and on ships, who desperately tried to exit the country as the North Vietnamese army quickly closed in on Saigon. Surprising footage surfaced of U.S. soldiers pushing helicopters off ships to make way for Vietnamese refugees, and in one particularly harrowing event, a Vietnamese helicopter pilot tossing his family to safety from his hovering aircraft.

“Few of us actually know what happened,” she said. “I thought I knew this story, but I didn’t know the story.”

Piecing together that narrative involved looking at the exit through the “very specific” experiences of those present, Kennedy said.

“It does tell the story of these men on the ground that in the face of history did the right thing,” she said.

U.S. servicemen and diplomats struggled to help Vietnamese they had known and worked with as the Vietnamese frantically tried to decide how to escape. Their combined accounts created a gripping tale.

“People say the film feels like watching a ticking clock,” Kennedy said.

In addition to interviewing those who got out, Kennedy uncovered the story of those left behind, a difficult task.

“Finding one of the 422 people left behind [at the embassy] was hard,” she said.

After four decades, have we as a country drawn any lessons from Vietnam?

“I don’t think we really have learned much from this experience,” Kennedy said. Still, it’s important to carefully consider “whether or not to enter a war,” she said.

“Once you start, things can get out of control,” she said. “Keep in mind the human cost of war.”

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