By Melonie Magruder
Rory Kennedy traces the footsteps of a father she never knew. With her new documentary Last Days in Vietnam, Kennedy provides a bookend to Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s conviction that Americans should have had no involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s a conviction so strong, his daughter says, that it fatefully led him to seek the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1968.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy has illuminated many of the subtler chapters in America’s recent history with her documentaries that capture the nuanced circumstances of our nation’s moral conflicts. From American Hollow, about a struggling Appalachian family, to the Academy Award-nominated Street Fight, about the unsuccessful Newark, New Jersey mayoral campaign of Cory Booker, to Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which put a human face on the soldiers accused of torture at the infamous Iraqi prison, Kennedy displays the same commitment to social justice as her famous father.
“I’ve always believed that Vietnam was a seminal moment in U.S. history,” Kennedy said in her Malibu home. “My dad ran for President so that he could get us out. It’s been in my consciousness since an early age. Last year we were on the brink of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, so I was intrigued with the subject.”
Last Days in Vietnam portrays the last weeks of the American presence in South Vietnam in 1975, when then-Ambassador Graham Martin, refusing to believe that Saigon would ever fall to the North Vietnamese, declined to plan an evacuation for the thousands of American citizens still around Saigon and more than 200,000 South Vietnamese citizens who had worked for the U.S.
The story is told through on-camera interviews with participants in the events, including Henry Kissinger, and footage found in archive bureaus around the world. Also included are invaluable old home movies from a U.S. sailor who escorted South Vietnamese refugees to safety. The archival footage Kennedy found to tell her story is astonishing in its timeliness, perfectly framing the growing panic of a large city realizing that it is caught in a trap.
“When Ambassador Martin finally gave the order to evacuate at the end of April 1975, the big question was, who will get out and who will be left behind,” Kennedy said. Martin wasn’t giving any evacuation orders, so young American stationed in Saigon had started a “Black Ops” movement to spirit South Vietnamese families out of the country. Martin was reportedly furious at this perceived admission of defeat.
Some of the scenes are heartbreaking in their finality. Before the U.S.S. Kirk and other ships carrying thousands of refugees could berth in the Philippines, they were forced to lower the South Vietnamese flag and replace it the American flag, as the new Communist government was not formally recognized by the Philippine Congress.
“They called Vietnam ‘the living room war,’ since it was the first time you could see an American war on your TV every night,” Kennedy said. “Those images were powerful. With this movie, we wanted to remind people of the human cost of that war.”
The human cost has long been a passion of Kennedy’s. Born six months after her father’s assassination, Kennedy grew up with the example of her mother, Ethel Kennedy (and the subject of Rory’s last documentary) a longtime champion for civil rights and the oppressed.
Rory attended Brown University, where she met Vanessa Vadim (daughter of Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda) and formed May Day Media, a nonprofit that specializes in socially conscious films. In 1998, she and fellow Brown graduate Liz Garbus founded Moxie Firecracker Films, whose documentaries on social issues have aired on cable networks from A&E to HBO.
When she was still a student at Brown, she marched to support the rights of migrant grape pickers with Caesar Chavez.
“The idea was to fast for four days to protest their working conditions, then hand the baton off to the next volunteer to fast,” Kennedy said. She was handed the baton by actor and activist Martin Sheen, who is, ironically, now her neighbor in Malibu.
American media doesn’t always fulfill its basic function of informing a viewership. Kennedy noted that even as recently as 10 years ago, the media wasn’t allowed to show the coffins of U.S. soldiers returning from war. When asked if she thought her films would throw a spotlight on some of the nation’s most egregious injustices, perhaps changing the world, Kennedy sighed, sounding half-frustrated, half-resigned.
“Awareness in and of itself will change the world,” Kennedy said. “Films have the power to contribute. Maybe one person and one film can’t do it alone, but hopefully, such films can encourage not just American media but the American public to ask the hard questions of our nation’s leaders and demand answers.”
The process of creating her documentaries, through taking multiple snippets of information and then condensing the story down to a viable narrative, she says paints a much bigger picture. When working on Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, she said the big lesson she learned in the torturous scandal of that prison was that everything inflicted on detainees under the U.S. military was “orders that came from the top,” which made the foot soldiers in charge of the prison more vulnerable.
“Kids 18-years-old were told, basically, to break these prisoners,” Kennedy said. “Eighteen! They don’t know what’s appropriate. And the tragedy is that soldiers on the front lines paid for these policies with increased hatred of the occupation. Those high up [in the military chain of command] were rewarded.”
Last Days of Vietnam will be screened in Washington DC she said in hopes of targeting policymakers currently making decisions about an American military presence in the Middle East.
“What gets lost in the debate of engaging in war is what happens to people on the ground after you leave,” Kennedy said. “How is winning defined? I’m not a pacifist, but with these kinds of complications, war should be the last resort.”
Kennedy and her family resettled to the West Coast a few years ago from Brooklyn in part to afford easier work access for her husband, screenwriter Mark Bailey. She said she’s excited to spend more time with her three children and is even learning to surf. But she has no plans to rest on her laurels. She recently worked on a series called Makers, about women in Hollywood and politics.
“I love making documentaries,” she said. “Millions of people watch and it has an impact. I love telling stories. It’s what I am passionate about.”
When asked if her commitment to social action might spur her to enter the political fray herself someday, she demured. “Right now, I have no plans,” she said. “But one should never say never.”