Of course, as with most documentaries dealing with how America yet again saved the day, it fails to truly focus on the fact that the US threw itself into the conflict in the first place. Meanwhile, the over-reliance on talking heads, rousing music and a ploddingly linear structure disturb and chop up the material, but the film’s shortcomings are often outweighed by the extraordinary recordings.
US-history lovers will be aware of the four evacuation options (parodied in The Simpsons Movie) dreamed up in Operation Frequent Wind. The fourth was a last resort – mass evac by helicopter to nearby vessels – a painstakingly slow procedure as there were thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese people crammed into the Embassy awaiting liberation. One truly astonishing shot sees commercial helicopters, many flown from further south after word got out that a rescue was underway, ditched on American aircraft carriers. As the marines needed to clear the landing area for incoming choppers, the crew literally pushed the old ones overboard.
Thankfully Kennedy does dwell on some of the political fumbles that underpinned the hurried evacuation. US Ambassador Graham Martin blankly denied that Saigon was in trouble until the North’s artillery was hammering the nearby airport. Meanwhile Congress voted against financial relief to help speed up the process. It seemed the US had finally figured out how to say no – just at the wrong time. But Kissinger is not held to any sort of account in the film, nor are the Vietnamese people allowed enough screen time to present rounded accounts of the entire experience.
It’s no Errol Morris documentary, and is certainly a departure from Kennedy’s previous outings. However, the film poignantly eulogises one of the bloodiest and most expensive modern wars we have ever witnessed, capturing the dramatic and heartbreaking plight of both the families who perished, and the soldiers whose paradoxical heroism and guilt have tortured them for a lifetime.