Tracy Droz Tragos (Rich Hill) Talks Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam

Made almost 40 years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, this documentary underlines why we must not forget the lessons of that war.

Stories of war need to be told. And it is a moral imperative that filmmakers continue to tell them with whatever means, be they fictional or non-fictional, they have at their disposal. Ultimately it’s the politicians, especially those who have never been in combat, who need to see these films. In my fantasy world, seeing them would be a requirement for any elected official wishing to cast a vote.

Viewing might start with Gallipoli. Then maybe Schindler’s List and The Thin Red Line. And on to The Deer Hunter, followed by Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now. Some Restrepo, The Fog of War and To Hell and Back, not to mention 5 Broken Cameras and The Hurt Locker. I’m just getting started, but you get the idea.

It doesn’t matter how often a war has been covered or how long ago it happened. As nations and citizens and human beings, we need to hear these stories — again and again — so that we have some inkling of what’s at stake when we enter into these global conflicts, and so that we’ll think hard about how in the hell we get out of them. Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam is about the getting-out part.

My first documentary, Be Good, Smile Pretty, was a personal film about my journey to know my father, who was killed in an ambush on the Mekong Delta when I was three months old. My fascination with Vietnam is pretty intense; you’d be hard-pressed to find a film about Vietnam I haven’t seen or a book I haven’t read. As I’m writing this, all I have to do is look to the shelf above my monitor, and I’ve got Paco’s Story, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young and The Best and the Brightest. Still, I can imagine being approached to make another film about Vietnam, and thinking to myself — as apparently Rory Kennedy did at first — what is there is to say that hasn’t already been said?

I am thrilled that American Experience reached out to her and not to me, because Kennedy has made an impeccable, amazing film. She weaves the story of the last 24 hours of the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon in April 1975, by all accounts a debacle. She reveals the complexity, the moral dilemmas and the incredible heroism of Americans who defied orders and took matters into their own hands by getting as many refugees out of the country as they could. Thousands of South Vietnamese faced possible imprisonment, torture, re-education camps and even execution. So many of them had supported Americans and their families. The cook. The tailor. Who would get out? Only those who could jump a fence?

The first-hand accounts of that final day, layered with unbelievable archival footage, reveal a regrettable but inevitable moment in American history, one that has so much enduring resonance, especially now, as we negotiate our departure from Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were many opportunities for history to have a taken different turn, to have prevented the chaos of those helicopters leaving the embassy. If President Kennedy had lived, perhaps he would not have escalated our involvement in the first place. Perhaps the North Vietnamese would have honored the Paris Peace Accords if Nixon had not resigned in disgrace. Perhaps, if public opinion had been different and Gerald Ford had received the $722 million he requested from Congress, South Vietnam could have withstood the NVA and maintained some measure of control. Surely, the last-minute scramble might have been avoided if Ambassador Graham Martin had been more of a realist instead of refusing to accept that Saigon could or would ever fall. Yet even he demonstrated compassion and moral leadership when he defied orders until the last moment, waiting for a Presidential instruction.

Yes, Last Days of Vietnam is a historical documentary about how the U.S. Embassy finally left Vietnam. But at its heart, where Rory Kennedy is most profound, it is a powerful statement about the cost of war and the resilient dignity of those caught up in it. In a matter of hours, currency was burned and hundred-year-old trees were cut down. Helicopters and weaponry — even gold bars — were dumped in the ocean. And America’s promise of a “steadfast commitment” was abandoned even as trusting refugees gathered around a swimming pool to be airlifted out.

“Listen to the casualty statistics,” my mother said at the March on Washington in 1969, protesting the Vietnam War. “And, dear God, hear them.” She held a placard with my father’s name on it. Like my mother, I am proud of my father and his service. I am not proud of the Vietnam War. But whatever anger I feel is aimed not at those who served or those who were its victims, but at political leaders. For even in the midst of the shameful mishandling of our withdrawal, there were honorable and complex individuals who followed their own moral compass and tried to do what was right.

As Last Days of Vietnam demonstrates, ultimately, when all the money is burned and we step out of our boots and military garb, we are human beings, and what matters is bigger than country and ego and possession. What matters is our shared humanity, which allows us — compels us — to say, “I will break the rules and risk everything to do what is morally right.” Indeed, there is such a thing as honor over duty. As Kennedy’s film puts it, “Sometimes there’s an issue of not illegal or legal but right and wrong. You don’t have time to think, you just have to do it.”

Tracy Droz Tragos is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who produced and directed Be Good, Smile Pretty, which aired on PBS. In collaboration with Andrew Droz Palermo, she directed and produced the 2014 Sundance-winner Rich Hill, which will open in theaters this summer and will broadcast on the PBS series “Independent Lens” in 2015.