Former war correspondents and academics have condemned the Oscar-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam for attempting to re-write American history.
The experts have charged Rory Kennedy, who directed and produced Last Days, with everything from fudging facts to offering a version of history constructed by the very men who decided to “pull the plug,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says in the film, on the Republic of Vietnam.
The 90-minute documentary begins on the streets of Saigon in April 1975 as the Republic's government is losing control. A drum beats ominously as retired US Army Captain Stuart Herrington speaks: “As we began to contemplate evacuation [from Saigon], the question, the burning question was: who stays and who gets left behind?”
Herrington relates a misty-eyed story of sneaking a South Vietnamese Colonel and his family onto a flight out of the country.
The film weaves harrowing archival footage of the final weeks—and then hours—of Saigon through present-day interviews with CIA analysts, State Department officials, embassy guards and civilian contractors who recalled their struggles to get Vietnamese friends and allies onto helicopters and naval ships in defiance of orders to only remove Americans and their loved ones.
A Washington Post reviewer painted the film as “a wartime thriller, with heroes engaging in jaw-dropping feats of ingenuity and derring do.” Others hailed the film's pacing and Kennedy's use of never-before-seen footage of, among other things, overloaded ships pouring out toward the Philippines.
But many who closely studied the war found the historical exposition in Kennedy's documentary highly-problematic during its limited theater release in 2014. Its Oscar nomination and subsequent screenings on PBS' American Experience program have stirred that dialogue anew.
“The first 25 minutes of the documentary devoted to establishing background and context are dangerously simplistic, quickly abandon all pretense at historical accuracy or balance, and [are] extremely manipulative,” wrote Christoph Giebel, an Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History and International Studies at the University of Washington, last week on the Vietnam Scholars' list serve
Giebel's recent critique was directed at film that the director had already revised based on criticism from a group of war-era journalists and diplomats.
Kennedy, who is President John F. Kennedy's niece, did not respond to a list of written questions.
But that critical process began after an early screening, when Arnold R. Isaacs who reported in Vietnam from 1972-75 and authored the book Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, challenged Kennedy on a number of key assertions.
“[Kennedy's] answer was: 'we couldn't go into all the history,” he said in a telephone interview.
Afterward, Isaacs drafted a letter
arguing that portions of the film had erroneously claimed the rapid collapse of the Republic of Vietnam came about because “the North” had solely violated the Paris Peace Accords and the American anti-war movement had moved Congress to cut off financial aid.
The letter has since been signed by 32 journalists and diplomats.
Jim Laurie, a former NBC correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia who was featured in the film gave Kennedy an “A for filmmaking” and a “C for history.”
Laurie, who signed Arnolds' letter, has pushed PBS to create a section on its American Experience website where experts could post criticism, but was told by an executive producer that his team was “completely consumed by the Oscar campaign.”
Laurie says he's concerned about what the film tells its audience.
“Americans get very little education about Vietnam in school,” Laurie said via telephone. “I worry that many will walk away from the film saying, 'Hey Americans may have made a big mistake being in Vietnam but aren't they nice for helping a few thousand get out?”
Broadly speaking, many journalists and experts have taken issue with the way Kennedy chose to heighten the film's drama by relying on what Arnolds called “a false narrative” about why the Republic of Vietnam collapsed.
In the film, a State Department official dramatically recalls President Gerald Ford uncharacteristically calling the Congress that refused to approve a final aid package “sons of bitches.” By that time, the Republic of Vietnam’s notoriously kleptocratic political and military leadership had lost control of massive swaths of territory and was plotting its escape.
Another of the film's major lightning rods was an aging Henry Kissinger's claim that the citizens of Saigon were not viewed as “just pawns who once they lost their military power were abandoned.” In a lengthy criticism
posted on his website, former Chief CIA Analyst Frank Snepp (who also appeared in the film) points out that Nixon recorded Kissinger plotting to blame the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam on its own incompetence.
Perhaps most significantly, several members of the Vietnamese community have condemned the way the Last Days in Vietnam fails to consider America's culpability in a war that claimed three million lives in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Dao X. Tran, who fled Saigon on a boat with her family as a child, published a withering review
of the documentary last October.
Despite her low opinion of the film, Tran says she wasn't surprised by its Oscar nomination.
“The Academy is not known for making choices that laud films that center on more marginal voices and sadly, Vietnamese voices are marginal—even in depictions of the war that took place in their country,” she wrote in an email.
Professor Nguyen Thanh Viet, who teaches American Studies at the University of Southern California, echoed the same sentiment.
“It was exactly what I thought it was going to be,” said Nguyen. “American good intentions get reaffirmed. Although Vietnamese faces end the film, they are just victims who are grateful to Americans.”