A feel-good movie -- not about America, perhaps, but Americans -- Rory Kennedy's "Last Days in Vietnam" is about a moral quandary inside a moral quandary.
In August, 1975, with Richard Nixon a year out of office and the North Vietnamese making their unstoppable way south to Saigon, service people at the U.S. embassy had to decide what to do: Follow the lead of their ambassador, Graham Martin, and ignore the imminent invasion. Or violate their ostensible duty and keep as many people as they could out of the hands of the Communists -- and face possible courts-martial for doing so.
That so many chose their conscience over the law makes "Last Days in Vietnam" -- a movie rich in extraordinary archival footage, and extraordinary people -- a war movie with obvious messages for today's State Department and diplomatic corps. But it never draws any obvious parallels or comments on Afghanistan, Iraq or the rest of Middle East.
Rather, veteran documentarian Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," "Ethel") immerses her viewers in the world of a collapsing South Vietnamese military, a feckless Ford administration, Martin's blinkered view of Saigon's future and some people who took the bull by the horns and tried to save people who, by dint of their cooperation with the United States, were slated for torture, death or "re-education."
In addition to the sensational imagery -- of desperate South Vietnamese being hauled aboard a World Airways jet by its flight crew as it taxied down a runway -- Kennedy has pretty sensational people, including Miki Nguyen. As a small child, he was carried to the USS Kirk by his father, who saved his family by flying a huge Chinook helicopter to the waiting ship, dropping his family to the sailors below and then scuttling his aircraft. It's one of the better stories in a movie full of them, about a war that still leaves us perplexed.
PLOT Soulful, revelatory documentary about the fall of Saigon, the mad flight from the North Vietnamese and a few Americans rising to the occasion.
BOTTOM LINE Inspiring and thrilling.