Rory Kennedy’s latest film takes us to ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

SHARE Rory Kennedy’s latest film takes us to ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy will be at the Music Box Theatre Friday night for the opening of her film, “Last Days in Vietnam.” | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Emmy Award winner Rory Kennedy has directed and produced more than 25 documentaries, including “Ghost of Abu Ghraib,” and films about longtime White House UPI correspondent Helen Thomas, the AIDS crisis, and her own mother, Ethel Kennedy. The noted documentarian now has turned her focus to the final, excruciating days of the U.S. presence in Vietnam, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese — an event that occurred 40 years ago next spring.

Kennedy will be in Chicago Friday as “Last Days in Vietnam” opens at the Music Box Theatre on Southport for an exclusive engagement.

Q: One of the amazing things about your film is how you were able to acquire such a wealth of new footage — beyond the straight broadcast news films and archival recordings from the time. How did you get all of that?

A: We were very strategic about that, but we also got lucky. We certainly prioritized the archival footage, because I thought it was really important to make people feel like they were present. There was a guy who was on the [U.S.S.] Kirk [a U.S. Navy ship that helped transport fleeing South Vietnamese] who was a sailor. It turned out he had gone up to his attic and found a box of undeveloped Super-8 footage on the Kirk in 1975. I flew him out to L.A. and we developed it. So, the footage that you see at the end of the Chinook [helicopter] story [transporting people from the U.S. embassy in Saigon], the helicopters being dumped into the ocean and all that — about 12 minutes used in the final film— that all came from him. It’s never been developed or seen before.

Q: What was the original spark of an idea that made you want to make this film?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by Vietnam. I consider it a seminal event in our nation’s history. It was very much a part of my growing up, the ether of my childhood. My initial reaction to the idea to doing a film about the last days in Vietnam was a bit reluctant, because so much had been done on Vietnam. I wondered if I could add anything new to the story.

Then as I started researching it, there was so much I didn’t know. I was kind of blown away by how dramatic the story was, how incredible it was, and how little I actually knew.

Now, sharing the film with audiences around the country, that’s one of the dominant responses I get. People say, “I can’t believe I didn’t know this story.” We all thought we knew it. Ninety percent of it is new material for people.

Q: In watching the film, it struck me how you made this into a very personal story about ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of the fall of Saigon.

A: I think the film ultimately ends up being a reminder of the human cost of war. It was important to me to ground it in the people who were on the front lines, who were in Saigon at the time, or in Washington, like [Henry] Kissinger, who was helping to form the policies that ended up playing themselves out on the ground. We don’t interview, as you may have noticed, any historians who would be looking back. We don’t have a narrator. We wanted to deliver a firsthand, moment-by-moment account of what happened.

Q: I thought it was refreshing that you didn’t include a bunch of academic “talking heads” in this film.

A: Actually, I did interview a number of historians, because it’s a complicated story and I thought we might need them. But we ended up taking them out. We decided we really wanted to rely on our characters — those directly involved, who lived it — to tell our story.

Q: Were you struck by how long people waited to try and get out of Saigon and South Vietnam? Of course, hindsight is always 20-20, but it does seem surprising so many people didn’t see the inevitable.

A: You have to remember, that choice people had to make — leaving your home and all of your possessions behind you, plus leaving family — is terribly difficult. Plus, not only leaving the community you know, but heading out to a place where you don’t necessarily speak the language and you don’t know anybody, is a decision that is very tough to make. It only comes out at a certain point of desperation.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges in getting this film made?

A: I think the biggest challenge was in the editing — to communicate to the audience what was happening, because it was very confusing. Even people who we interviewed — who were at the same place at the same time — would tell very different versions of certain events. To navigate that and try to find the truth in that was challenging. There are a lot of characters and a lot of storylines and a lot of geographic locations that we’re jumping between, so that also was very challenging to pull off.

It was important to me to include — and keep central to the film – the perspective of the South Vietnamese. I would say they were harder to find. I wanted to find someone who were among the 420 people who were left behind at the [U.S.] embassy, and it was hard to find that person. We had a hard time finding the helicopter pilot Joe Barry. He ended up being a great interview for the film.

Kissinger, once we approached him, was probably the most resistent, but he eventually came around. He adds an important perspective. I tried to use him in a kind of minimal away and not have him emote, because I wanted him to help us understand what decisions were being made, and why.

Q: It’s also interesting to see how troubled and distraught President Ford was at having to — in effect — let down the South Vietnamese, though it was clear he was pretty helpless to provide aid at that point, right?

A: I think he was trying to make good decisions. Yet, one thing I would say I learned in making this was that by the spring of 1975, there were very few options available to the United States. I think for a whole range of reasons, President Ford was kind of stuck with the momentum of the war being behind him and not being in a position to control the direction of that.

Q: While the situation in the Middle East is different, do you think there are lessons here that can apply to today in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria?

A: One thing I want to say is that I tried to take the politics out of it in this film. I really just wanted to tell the story and from a firsthand account. Then people can make out of it what they want and apply their own politics to it. I wanted to have, as much as one can, a neutral document that lays out what happened.

Yet, there are echoes of what happened in Saigon in 1975 that we see playing themselves out today in Iraq and starting a little bit more in Afghanistan.They are obviousy different wars and different engagements and different circumstances, but yes, I do think there are lessons to be learned.

It is a reminder of the human cost of war. It’s easy enough to have debates about strategy and the impact of that and the various military and political effects, but I think it’s important to remember what happens to the people on the ground who were working with us, who were committed to us, who we were committed to. Because when we leave, they are more vulnerable.

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