By Gregory Crofton
Sometimes a movie comes out that isn’t professionally criticized. There are too many reasons for mainstream America to like it, so critics defer to the red-white-and-blue herd. Or maybe it’s directed by a Kennedy. “Last Days of Vietnam,” a new documentary by Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Rory, involves both elements.
It’s about war, patriotism, helping Vietnamese escape their falling-to-Communism country to gleaming, free and democratic America. We screwed up the war, but our hearts were in the right place during our last-minute evacuation of Saigon. That’s fine. But it’s not a compelling enough story to make into a 97-minute film.
How many times do you want to watch a helicopter fly through the air? How many emotional military men who tried to do the right thing should be heard from? Purely archival documentary films are trendy now, and that’s what Kennedy has, in a way, produced here. But the event’s dramatic arc languishes, and the interviews with military men (the part that’s non-archival) don’t add much to the story.
Rotten Tomatoes says 96 percent of critics liked it, while 68 percent of audiences found it worthwhile. In Rory Kennedy’s defense, making this documentary wasn’t her idea. PBS’ American Experience hired her for the project. Wonder if that was a marketing move?
The United States hasty exit from Vietnam is a story that needs to be told, particularly in light of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan now. But show it in 30 minutes, not triple that amount of time. “Last Days of Vietnam” is scheduled to air on PBS in April to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Kennedy has made 40 documentaries, including “Ethel,” (2012) about her mother, the wife of Robert F. Kennedy, and “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” (2007).