Rory Kennedy Talks About Oscar-nominated “Last Days In Vietnam”

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy.
April 29, 1975
Credit: Bettmann/Corbis
A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy. April 29, 1975 Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

UPDATE:

Join CAAM, Ron Pierce (Senior Director, PBS Stories of Service, Veteran initiatives), Binh Pho (subject in the film), and Hugh Doyle (chief engineer on the U.S.S. Kirk. Commander US Navy, Retired) in an online “OVEE” screening on Wednesday, April 22 at 5pm PT/8pm ET/ 7 C.

Last Days in Vietnam premieres Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 6pm PT/9pm ET/8pm C on PBS. Directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, recounts the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War and follows the unlikely heroes as they attempt to save as many South Vietnamese as possible.

+ + +

Last Days in Vietnam has been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature, which takes place February 22. The film focuses on the last days before the U.S. and South Vietnamese Army lost the war in Vietnam, on what is now known as the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Filmmaker Rory Kennedy directed the documentary for PBS’ American Experience. The film does not take a sweeping view of what led to the war, the U.S.’ involvement, or what happens beyond April 30, 1975. What it does is zeroes in on the harrowing and dramatic days when chaos and panic took over. A few U.S. military and diplomatic people had difficult decisions to make, sometimes going against official U.S. government orders to help some Vietnamese, mostly military and their families but also a few surprising others, to evacuate. The story is told from the perspective of male military personnel, both American and Vietnamese (American), and a few key American players including Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State under then-President Richard Nixon. The story doesn’t wrap up neatly as hundreds are left behindand rightly so, as the story of war should never be remembered as easy or neat. Here, I chat with Kennedy on what makes the film unique, the surprising stories that are still being unsurfaced, and what challenges she faced making the film.

—Momo Chang

On being asked by PBS and American Experience to make the film

I was interested in it immediately, but I also had reservations because I felt like so much had been done about Vietnam. My big question was whether I could offer something new. As I started doing research, and really understanding what happened during those final days, I realized how little I knew. That seems to be a consensus reaction, which is, “I can’t believe we don’t know this story.”

Rory Kennedy. Copyright Lyndie Benson.

Rory Kennedy. Copyright Lyndie Benson.

Have you screened the film with Vietnamese Americans, and what were some of the reactions?

I have to say that’s been one of the most gratifying aspects of this whole endeavor, which is to share the film with the Vietnamese community. I hate to generalize, but I have to say that the response has been so emotional and profound and moving and meaningful. I think for a lot of Vietnamese, this obviously was the seminal moment where they lost their country, for the South Vietnamese. And so many of them having then embarked on the journey here—which our film doesn’t really discuss—it really ends at the end of the war at the end of April. And that’s the beginning of a whole new story. And a lot of Vietnamese who see the film tell us those stories. To then start hearing those stories, and start unpacking that has been really inspring and wonderful and rewarding and humbling. Because of that, and the expereince of all of us at American Experience, we started this whole effort to start to document those stories through audio and hopefully video versions [through the First Days project in partnership with StoryCorps].

I think also for so many Vietnamese, if it was parents who went through it as a generation—of course I hate to generalize like this—but I’ve really found it to be quite true that they don’t like to talk about it. It’s like, “These events occurred, and we’re moving on. You don’t dwell on the past.” I think for many of the younger generation, it’s the first time that they’v really understood what their parents had to go through to get here.

Were there specific challenges in making this film?

I would say it is very hard to make a film no matter what. We did have a number of challenges along the way. One of the stories we wanted to focus on were people who were left behind, particularly at the U.S. Embassy because all of those folks had been promised they would get out and then they were left there. So finding one of the 420 people that had been left behind. We ended up finding a wonderful man who is an artist who lives in Chicago and is terrific. I think he really helps tell that story and helps us understand it in meaningful ways.

Can you tell us how you found all the incredible archival footage?

It was a combination of doing research in the archive houses, and then getting lucky. We ended up finding amazing footage in peoples’ attics.

There was one guy had a box of [undigitized] Super 8 footage. It was reels. The only way you could watch it is if you had a projector. So we transferred it to digital. So the whole story of the USS Kirk, all the helicopters being thrown off the ship, the incredible story of the Chinook helicopter and the pilot throwing his family off of the helicopter in the middle of the ocean onto the USS Kirk, the lowering and raising of the flag—that was footage that we stumbled upon. I mean it was incredible. I think we used 12 minutes in the film which is a huge amount of footage. He was a sailor on the USS Kirk during the evacuation.

Was it difficult to find people who were willing to be in the film?

Kissinger was challenging. He was resistant. I think he felt he didn’t come across too well in most documentaries about Vietnam. He was resistant, but I was persitant and he finally came around.

What about some of the Vietnamese Americans in the film?

The biggest challenge was finding people. But most of the people who we found, once we asked them to participate, they agreed to participate. I don’t think anybody said no. It was just finding the stories and the right stories of people who were on the USS Kirk. There were a lot of people obsiously, who were leaving and had compelling and dramatic stories, but they had to intersect with what we were focusing on in our timeline and geographic location to make it work in the film. So we were pretty focused on the stories we were looking for. And I also wanted to find people both who had gotten out and who were left behind so you really undestand what the implications were.

What were some other reactions to your film?

I think there are people who have really strong opinions about Vietnam and about the war and about Kissinger. Which isn’t surprising to me. Largely, people really respond to this story and the humanity of it. Whatever their polticis are, they are deeply moved by it. But there are a handful of people who have felt very compelled to vocalize strong opinions about a range of opinions relating to the war. So I think it’s sort of interesting—after 40 years, how raw it can still be for so many.

Whenever you make a documentary, there’s always, “Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you make a film about that?” People come with their own narratives and their experience that they want portrayed. I’ve never not had that reaction for any documentary I’ve made. It’s human nature for people who are knowledgeable about a subject to feel like that. Often, the narrower and more focused on the human story is really the power of the medium, and it’s what I try to do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. CAAM is a community engagement partner of Last Days in Vietnam and the First Days Story Project. This post was originally published on February 16, 2015 and has been updated with the online OVEE screening time and PBS air date.