As the quagmire of the Vietnam War began to spiral toward its end with the North Vietnamese army advancing across the country, the South Vietnamese and the Americans stationed there trying to hold their line were faced with an enormous choice: stand their ground or retreat and evacuate. Those final weeks and the mad scramble to escape are the subject of Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary ‘Last Days in Vietnam’, an engrossing and nail-biting piece of documentary filmmaking being released this week on DVD and Blu-ray by Via Vision.
Created as part of the ongoing PBS American Experience series, released first as a theatrical feature and later in an extended television version, ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ weaves contemporary interviews and archival footage to give a startlingly vivid overview of the final days of the war. Many other documentaries have attempted to take on the huge mess of the Vietnam War, but by focusing on this contained period of time, Kennedy’s film has a surprising sense of immediacy and urgency. We’re in the process of watching the dominos fall, a race against time as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon, the last city left undefeated. The film does a great job at providing the wider context for the retreat, but where it delivers its punches is in its decision to follow the personal stories of those on the ground, men and women who commit acts of bravery and heroism driven by desperation and quick thinking.
'LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM' TRAILER
The footage and images assembled are remarkable, especially when coupled with the interviews to provide them with necessary personal context. Kennedy moves between diplomatic negotiations and hand-wringing about the cost of defeat to images of helpless people clinging onto buses, helicopters and airplanes, a mass of human desperation. One aspect that the film continues to return to is the enormous cost the defeat will bring, not to the Americans, but to the South Vietnamese that will be left behind, seen as conspirators and traitors by the invading army and likely to suffer because of it. The ongoing narrative of ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ is not just about American retreat, but the effort to save as many of the South Vietnamese as possible. A lesser documentary would trump this up as American heroism, but this film doesn’t allow itself that indulgence, moving at a furious pace akin to a thriller and rarely stopping to take a breath. Even the extended two-hour version still maintains a dynamic pace, never wasting a moment in its storytelling. Editor Don Kleszy does a remarkable job building rhythm and maintaining the tension, especially when moving between narrative threads, somehow allowing them all to culminate in a satisfying, arresting conclusion.
Many other documentaries have attempted to take on the huge mess of the Vietnam War, but by focusing on this contained period of time, Kennedy’s film has a surprising sense of immediacy and urgency.
As with any great war documentary (and this is certainly one of them), ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ is at its best when telling a human story. There’s little to no pontificating or back-slapping, even when it would be justified, and it balances the American and South Vietnamese experience, offering an uncompromising portrait of this historic moment in time. This is a cracker of a documentary, taught and specific and incredibly arresting, capturing with intelligence and immediacy the end of one of the most controversial conflicts of the last century.
PICTURE & SOUND
For this release, Via Vision have carried over the 2015 U.S. release of the documentary, which includes both the theatrical version and the extended broadcast version, which includes around 20 minutes of extra footage. The 1080i 1.78:1 transfer is wonderfully sharp, with some excellent work done to restore the archival footage for high definition. The overall look of the film is slick and clean, demonstrating how effective documentaries can look on Blu-ray. In terms of audio, we are given a Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0, both of which are surprisingly robust and immersive. It’s a pity no lossless option was included, but neither of the lossy tracks are anything to scoff at, the 5.1 track in particular matching the impressive video with powerful aural punch.
As with the U.S. release, there are no extras included on this disc.