Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Last Days in Vietnam" Documentary is Fatally Flawed

Update: Thanh Nien (20 February 2015) links to this blog: "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."  The same article, by Calvin Godfrey, was also posted on diaCRITICS the following day.
The recent online free screening of an Oscar contending documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, on the Vietnam War (or American War) has sparked quite a bit of debate.  For instance, Nick Turse has panned it in the Nation, pointing out the consequences of the massive American bombing are still felt in Vietnam.

On Subversities, with the permission of the author of another critique, we provide here this Vietnam Studies academic's analysis of this documentary, taken from postings originally on the Vietnam Studies Group list.  Here is University of Washington historian Christoph Giebel's critique below, with headlines added:

A Fatal Flaw

I first saw the documentary in September at a pre-screening, and my many misgivings then were only reconfirmed by seeing it now again online.  The fact that the documentary is “widely praised” and nominated for highest US awards is much more of a commentary on current US culture —steeped in nationalist discourses of exceptionalism, thoroughly militarized, and narcissistic— than a reflection of its actual quality.  While most of the film is taken up by a detailed telling of the evacuation, the first 25 minutes of the documentary devoted to establishing background/context are dangerously simplistic, quickly abandon all pretense at historical accuracy or balance, and extremely manipulative.  These opening 25 minutes are a fatal flaw that render the entire documentary questionable at best.  Apart from the compellingly told, if minor human-interest stories contained in the main portions of the film, “Last Days in Vietnam” is the worst attempt at documenting the war I have seen in a long while.  In its early parts it comes across as a bad caricature of Cold War propaganda, and seemingly un-self-aware at that.

There is no indication in the credits that the film makers consulted any historians.  Instead, they seem to have relied on their own general, vague sense of how the war is being discussed in conventional, establishment discourses in the US or on the perspectives of the main US protagonists that are then uncritically presented as factual background.  The quote by Rory Kennedy in the linked review is bitterly ironic, as the film maker is revealed as incurious and easily swayed by the worst revisionist tropes of US politics over the war in Viet Nam.

Here’s my first stab at pointing to a few of the main issues with the documentary’s opening 25 minutes:

1) US-centrism and exceptionalism:
With one of its main themes being the “abandonment” of "South Vietnam” by the US, the unspoken, but heavily hinted at argument is that US action alone would have prevented the collapse of the RVN. The long-debunked notion that the US “cut” aid and did not provide the Paris Agreement-mandated supplies is trotted out and portrayed as central to why the ARVN was disintegrating (see, for example, the roughly 90 seconds starting at 22:18).  It is entirely US (in)action that is determining the outcome of unfolding events, not Vietnamese action/agency.

2) Complex US debates reduced to liberal “abandonment”:
The documentary participates in one-sided US politics by pointing at Congress and the US anti-war movement as main culprits for this “abandonment.”  See, for example, the a little over two minutes of scenes starting at 16:43: President Ford asking Congress for $722 million, Rep. McCloskey then explaining that Congress was unwilling to appropriate that money, overlaid simultaneously with (older) images of anti-war protestors, mainly holding up “Bring the troops home” placards. The complex ways in which the US public debated and opposed the war are thus reduced to being only self-interested in “bringing the boys home” and not caring about/abandoning "the South Vietnamese.”  The same manipulative overlaying of images occurs once more, starting at 23:47: Kissinger speaks into the camera about the two reasons for Ford’s $722 million request, one, "to save as many people as we could … the human beings involved, that they were not just pawns” and second, "the honor of America, that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Viet Nam as having stabbed it in the back.”  The images immediately cut to a newspaper headline of April 18 “Congress Balks At Arms Aid,” followed by a presidential aide remembering how he brought the news to Ford and the President uncharacteristically using a swear word, calling Congress “sons of bitches.”  The message to take away: Ford/Kissinger deeply cared, Congressional sons-of-bitches and the anti-war protesters did not and cold-heartedly stabbed “South Viet Nam” in the back.

(I will not speak here to the adventurous notion that Congressional appropriation (not assembling, shipping, delivering, distributing), on April 17, of emergency military aid, in violation of the Paris Agreement, would have made a lick of a difference before April 30.)

3) False and manipulative framing along US propagandistic, Cold War rhetoric:
The documentary abounds with the terms “North Vietnamese” v. “South Vietnamese,” all neatly homogeneous, and with a false spatial, binary representation of the warring parties as “North Viet Nam” and “South Viet Nam,” and of a “North Vietnamese” “invasion” “into” "South Vietnam” (caption at 7:54).  That the propaganda trope of two discrete countries and a “Northern" invasion is still being peddled —and widely accepted— in 2014 as an accurate historical rendition of the war is shocking.  Others have already pointed to the grotesque digital map with its 1950s, McCarthyism-style red ooze gobbling up homogeneously yellow territory.  It appears at 13:54, 18:52, and 33:56.  On this disturbing count alone, the film loses all credibility.  (It is one thing to say that the historical witnesses and the parties they represent may have subjectively felt this to be true, but the documentary portrays it as fact.)

Needless to say that the Paris Agreement knew no “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” (as captioned at 3:20), but instead the DRVN and RVN, both claiming to have sole, all-Vietnamese authority, and the NLF’s RSVN thrown in for good measure.  The DMZ of the map was long defunct.  Revolutionary forces (PAVN, PLAF, local guerrillas) controlled large areas of Viet Nam south of the 17th parallel, as specifically acknowledged by the Paris Agreement.  There were many factions of southern Vietnamese, supporters of the RVN being merely one of them.  No matter, the documentary collapses “South Viet Nam” with, and assigns it to, the RVN and completely elides revolutionary and nonaligned southerners.  (That makes for oddly confusing images at the end of relieved, happy if not jubilant Sai Gon citizens welcoming the victors.)

4) One-sided misrepresentation of the Paris Agreement:
The film falsely reduces the Paris Agreement to "a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam,” without mentioning that (1) the warring parties were not defined by these spatial terms, that (2) the ceasefire was in situ and not at the 17th parallel, and that (3) there were political provisions calling for a peaceful settlement that were immediately renounced by the RVN after the signing.  No mention is made of the much more aggressive violations of the ceasefire by the ARVN in 1973.  Of course the revolutionary side violated the Paris Agreement as well, albeit initially in a reactive manner, but the documentary, in maps and words, obscures the complexity of the situation  and resorts to manipulating the uninformed audience into believing that a ceasefire existed between a “North Viet Nam” and a peaceful, homogeneous “South Viet Nam”-cum-RVN that was only violated on March 10, 1975 by an “invasion.”

5) One-sided representation of war-time violence:
Dao X. Tran in the online review has said already enough on this point.  Again, it is one thing to portray the legitimate fear of communist violence and civilian killings as foregrounded in the subjective perspective of the documentary’s protagonists.  But this is what the film portrays alone to be the nature of warfare against the entirety of “the South Vietnamese.”  No one else perpetrated violence, no one else suffered.  See segment starting at 8:22.

6) Racist/orientalist reductionism of Vietnamese actions, motivations, and feelings:
One of the most appalling scenes of Last Days in Vietnam is CIA-agent Frank Snepp “explaining” what led to the “invasion” of Spring 1975.  Starting at 7:20: "The North Vietnamese viewed Nixon as a madman. They were terrified of him. They believed that Nixon, if necessary, would bring back American air power. But in August 1974, he was gone. … And overnight everything changed. Ha Noi suddenly saw the road to Sai Gon as being open.”
For the documentary, this segment functions as the crucial and only link between two points:  (A) The (falsely portrayed) ceasefire “between North and South Vietnam” and Nixon’s (hollow) assurances to Thieu that "if the North Vietnamese were to substantially violate the terms of the Paris Agreement, the United States would respond with full force.”  And (B) The “North Vietnamese” “invasion” of March 10, 1975 and subsequent US “abandonment” of “South Viet Nam."
The implications of Snepp’s simplistic point are two-fold: on the one hand, it reinforces the subtle message already discussed under (1) and (2) above that it was liberal hounding of Nixon, who alone as towering Uncle Sam held the line for “South Viet Nam,” that ultimately led to the RVN’s collapse.  On the other hand, it plays into long-standing racist notions in the West that “the natives” are easily swayed by, and can be kept under control through, fear, “shock and awe,” and the threat of violence.  Here the rational, if cunning, but ultimately well-meaning White Man, there the superstitious, emotional, child-like Little Brown “commie."
Naturally, the domestic turmoil in the US played a role in revolutionary plans, but the idea that “the North Vietnamese … were terrified of [Nixon]” and that it was this irrational fear that kept them in check is laughable, unbelievably substance-free, and plain ugly.

The first 25 minutes of Last Days in Vietnam sink the documentary.  This is too bad, because the human-interest story of the evacuation in the bulk of the film give voice to people immediately affected by the events in compelling and, at times, quite moving ways.

C. Giebel
Assoc. Prof. of History (Southeast Asia)
and International Studies (Viet Nam)
University of Washington -Seattle
7 February 2015 Postcript from Prof. Giebel:
Alternative Introduction Suggested 
If this film was meant as a snapshot of one city at a particularly perilous moment, an intro along the following introductory lines would have completely sufficed:

Southern Viet Nam, 20 April 1975:  the ARVN was unraveling before the combined forces of Vietnamese revolutionaries, barely five weeks into a General Offensive that swept entrenched communist-led divisions into the lowland population centers of central and southern-central Viet Nam.  A re-intervention of US forces was, for a complex set of domestic political reasons, out of the question.  The battle at Xuan Loc to hold the final defensive line before the approaches to Sai Gon, capital of the RVN, was lost, having ground up the last organized reserve units of ARVN.  The Republic of Viet Nam now rapidly collapsed, many of its troops, commanding officers, and civil servants deserting their posts, its leadership in disarray and embroiled in factional fighting, and any semblance of a functioning government quickly vanishing in the few remaining territories under its control — the vicinity of Sai Gon and scattered areas in the Mekong Delta.  Total defeat was only a matter of time.  With increasing urgency, indeed desperation, US personnel now faced the task of organizing an emergency evacuation of around 7,000 US citizens, their Vietnamese dependents, and perhaps several hundred thousand Vietnamese affiliated with the Republic and its armed forces, who were at risk of revolutionary reprisals.  The city of Sai Gon was teeming with people bewildered by the rapidly unfolding events, some in great fear for their safety, some secretly jubilant in their revolutionary loyalty, many others exhaustedly awaiting the end of war.  This documentary is about the untold stories of some remarkable Americans and Vietnamese caught up in the evacuation efforts from Sai Gon as the United States and many Republican loyalists faced their Last Days In Viet Nam.

There.  Took ten minutes to write.  Could have been spoken in voice-over in three minutes as a prologue to the documentary.  No gimmicky McCarthyite maps of red ooze, no gross distortions of the Paris Agreement, no utterly misleading regional/spatial terminology, no false insinuation of a ceasefire at the 17th parallel between discrete countries broken by a “Northern invasion,” no caricature of US politics, no homogenization of populations, no disrespect for the suffering of many ordinary people in southern Viet Nam.

Instead: trotting out, for 25 minutes, one Cold War propaganda zombie after the other that have, for two generations, prevented reconciliation across old divides and a more mature engagement of US society at large with the war in Viet Nam.  The film makers had choices.  They ruined what could have been a fine documentary.

Christoph Giebel