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Rory Kennedy on History and Lessons Learned from Vietnam

By Tom White

Last Days in Vietnam documents the frenzied, final chapter of a lamentable period in the American narrative. With access to remarkable footage of both the 45 days leading to the fall of Saigon and the 1973 cease-fire treaty that started the slow retreat, and to the key actors in that drama, producer/director Rory Kennedy has crafted a riveting, suspenseful account of history. Last Days in Vietnam, one of the Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature, airs April 28 on the PBS series American Experience.

Eschewing a re-examination of the Vietnam War, Kennedy focuses on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of that chaotic month and on the lesser known characters in this episode—the noble-and-principled-to-a-fault ambassador, who stubbornly delayed the evacuation; the heroic servicemen, who tirelessly evacuated as many American and Vietnamese as possible; the journalists who covered the last days; and the magnanimous citizens who were left behind, but who eventually made it to the US. Last Days in Vietnam is not a revisionist history, but more of tribute to those who tried to salvage something redeeming out of lost cause.

We caught up with Kennedy by phone to talk about the history documentary genre, tracking down both footage and interviewees, and her hoped-for takeaways from the film.

Rory Kennedy and 'Last Days in Vietnam' editor Don Kleszy at the 30th IDA Documentary Awards. Photo: Todd Williamson/Invision for IDA/AP Images

As far as I know, you had not worked with American Experience prior to Last Days in Vietnam.

That's correct.


How did Mark Samels [executive producer of American Experience] present this project to you? What was it about your work that convinced him that you were the right person for this project?

Well, I had known Mark for a number of years and we had served on the board for the Emmys. He had seen Ethel at a film festival. I know he really liked that film and he had expressed an interest in working with me, and I think American Experience is really so well respected as a series.

I also knew his reputation as an executive and as somebody who is invested in trying to make the best film possible. That's not always the case with television executives, so it's always nice to find folks like that. That's certainly something that I've found over the years working with HBO.

And the story was interesting to me right off the bat. I've always been fascinated with Vietnam. I think it's a seminal moment in our nation's history. My reservation was that I felt like there's been so much done on Vietnam that I didn't know if I could offer anything new to the story. But then as soon as I started really looking into the research of this story, I realized how much I didn't know and how little other people knew of the events that took place in the end of April 1975.

I felt that it was an incredibly dramatic story—probably more so than any other film I've ever made. I also felt the story had relevance. We were, as a nation, at the brink of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned looking back 40 years at what happened in Vietnam so that we don't repeat these mistakes.


Most of your work prior to Ethel had been cinema vérité. Was Ethel your first history documentary?

No, I've done other historical documentaries. I did a film about the Homestead Strike of 1892, which was part of a series for The History Channel called The Ten Days That Changed America. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib was more recent history, but I would say it was a historical piece nonetheless. And then of course there's Ethel.


What were some of the challenges in transitioning from the cinema vérité genre to the history documentary genre?

Well, I think that there are some benefits in knowing what the story is before you start the edits and before you start the interviews and the filming processes. Generally, for these types of films I'll write a treatment and I'll know the story points I'm trying to get to and the range of characters that would represent the stories that I want to tell.

That often changes as I start filming and start editing. But if you read the treatment for this film, most of the story points that we had projected are in there. And then, there's some nuance and obviously some character development and folks who end up taking a stronger role who weren't in the initial proposal, or people who we didn't anticipate interviewing. But generally speaking, the events are all there.

So you have that level of control which is manageable, whereas in a vérité film, you're following events as they unfold and you really don't know what's going to happen and how long it's going to take and where it's going to lead you. So in that sense it's more controlled. But it has its own challenges. I think the biggest challenge is the visuals.

In a vérité film you're following events and you're filming them on camera, so you have the visual element organically in the material. Whereas with a film of this nature you have to go back and seek out that material and try to find archival footage that matches the stories that you're trying to tell.

The USS Kirk. Photo: Hugh Doyle

What were some of the major archival footage sources that were most beneficial to you?

Well, this was dubbed "The Living Room War," so it was the first war in our country that was really documented pretty extensively. ABC, NBC and CBS were in Vietnam. So we went to those archival houses and found the source material, so we weren't just getting the footage that had been broadcast on television already.

We found a lot of original footage that way that I think very few people had seen. And then we also got lucky. I ended up somewhat randomly meeting one of the sailors who was on the USS Kirk and he had just uncovered a box of Super 8 footage that had never been transferred before of the Kirk in 1975. That story plays a pretty significant role in our film and particularly in the events that occurred during those last 24 hours.

So his footage ended up really corresponding with the stories that I wanted to tell, and actually are in our treatment—including the story of that Chinook helicopter where the pilot throws his own children outside of the helicopter to try to save them and himself afterwards, which is a really dramatic story. A lot of the footage of the helicopters being thrown off the Kirk is the sailor’s.

And then at the end of the film, when you see all those boats that are overwhelmed with Vietnamese refugees—that’s all his footage, as well as the lowering and raising of the American flag and Vietnamese flag. Those are all pretty poignant moments in the film. I think we ended up using about 12 minutes of his footage.


What kind of shape was that Super 8 footage in?

It was in pretty good shape. There was definitely footage that we couldn’t use, and had started to turn to vinegar. Otherwise it was in surprisingly good shape and we ultimately had to do some fixes in the online but I don't think much more dramatically than for the footage coming out of the archive houses.


The other key element in any history documentary is the interviewees. How did you track down the Vietnamese who were in the film—particularly those who were left behind?

Binh Pho, who was left at the Embassy, was one of the hardest people to track down. Ultimately we found him through [retired Colonel] Stu Harrington, who had been at the Embassy. But I would say that the Vietnamese community was the hardest. As a community they're pretty tight-knit and they really didn't know what this film was going to be about and whether they should participate. Many of them had reservations. But ultimately everybody we asked to participate in the film ended up being interviewed.


Did you go to Vietnam yourself?

I didn't go to Vietnam. My intention was always to go there, but we had a limited budget and the reality was that our story really ends 40 years ago, and it's really driven by archival footage. What I ideally wanted was to include a story of the Vietnamese who were left behind and never got out of Vietnam and never left Vietnam.

We ended up interviewing other people who were left behind and ultimately made it to the United States, and I think they're wonderful people and their stories are really impactful. So I think that we didn't miss a whole lot, but that was my hope. But everybody told me that it would be very hard to get anybody in Vietnam to talk openly to us. The reality is—and you hate to make decisions this way—but to do a shoot over there was going to take away from other efforts and energy that I felt were more beneficial to our story.

Credit: Courtesy of © Nik Wheeler/Corbis

Getting to the editing process, how did your vision for the film change over the course of the whole post-production period?

Pretty early on I decided I really wanted to make the film without a narrator and without any historian, so it's just people with the firsthand knowledge. That's challenging with a complex story with a lot of characters.

It's the Vietnam War—some audiences come with a lot of knowledge. Other people don't even know what the Vietnam War was. So to orient people was a challenge, but we were able to accomplish that goal. But it presented some challenges along the way. One of our solutions was to bring in a graphic designer to help situate you geographically because we were in the Embassy. I wanted to show people where the airport was relative to the Embassy and where the rivers were and where the fleet was, so you're geographically comfortable and oriented.

And then as we're telling these stories and I really tried to narrow in on these individuals, we also needed to communicate what was going on in the big picture of the war. And we ultimately used news commentators [from the archival footage] to help us do that, which I think worked well.

I would also say that in the original proposal, the ambassador was a very different person from how he ultimately comes across in the film. I think that we were able to capture the nuance of his character more truthfully in the film than we did in our original proposal.


How did the ambassador change from the proposal to the film?

Well, how he came across in books was pretty much like the evil villain, and that was that. Doing the interviews, it became clear that while he certainly made some short-sighted decisions that had significant implications early on, he ultimately was somebody who really cared about the Vietnamese and was doing his best. Arguably at the end he risked his life to save as many of them as he could possible save, and he stayed in the Embassy until he got a presidential order to leave at 3:45 in the morning. So he was more complicated than we initially had read about him. Those are good discoveries to have and to be able to do justice to, I think.


You talked earlier about your initial misgivings about approaching this project, that there had been a lot of documentaries about Vietnam, and how would you find something different. Did you look at other Vietnam documentaries?

I did. There are some filmmakers who really don't want to look at other documentaries on the same subject, but I feel like it's valuable to me. A lot of these documentaries were made in the 1970s, and part of the benefit is just getting a very initial response to the footage and the archives that are out there, and somebody else has culled through that.

And it helps me understand the story that's definitely available, and then other directions where I would want to take that material and pursue. I know what's been out there and what the potential is. So I watched the series that PBS produced in the 1980s on the Vietnam War. And there were other documentaries, none of which had the story of the Kirk, or they're all narrator-driven and very event-oriented—the “And then this happened, and then this happened” type of approach. None of them came close to our angle or take on it, but they were helpful to understand both the events and the footage that was available.

The USS Kirk. Photo: Hugh Doyle.

Looking at those films that you just mentioned, made in the middle of the war or five or ten years after it, there was still this raw, visceral assessment of this period of history. You had the benefit of 40 years to really get a sense of what Vietnam means to America and how it resonates how. I’m thinking of two more recent films—The Fog of War and Sir! No Sir! Did you watch those films as well?

I didn't watch Fog of War again; I had seen it. And I did not see Sir! No Sir! But there were some well-known films that I didn't see. We were telling a very narrow story, about these final days and those events. So I tended to veer towards material that focused on that.


What are the lessons that we may or may not have learned from Vietnam, and what do you hope viewers will take away?

Well, a few things. The overwhelming responses of audiences watching the film is a sense of “I can't believe I didn't know this story.” This is an essential part of our nation's history and a story that we all think we know, and we just don't know it as a nation. And so I think that’s one thing I hope viewers will take away from the film, which is just the kind of basic sharing of this really extraordinary moment.

We think of Vietnam and it's not our bright shining moment in our nation's history. It's not a moment that we are necessarily proud of as a nation, this war. And yet these people on the ground did the right thing. And they were the best that they could be and they made the best decisions they could and it's a wave of history moving against them.

And I think there's a lesson to be learned from that that. Here we are in these arguably disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now with ISIS, and how can we as a nation take some lessons from these people who are on the front lines and be the best that we can be and make the best decisions we can make?

One of the things that I learned in the making of this film is that by April 1975, there were very few good options available to the US government, and it became very clear to me that the time to make these decisions and where you have the most amount of control is before you enter these wars. Once you enter them, you can very easily lose control and things can get out of hand and, there can be lots and lots of loss and there's huge stakes, people on the ground.

And so that's also something to reflect upon. You know, this film came out in Washington theatrically the night that Obama gave his ISIS speech, and there was a great article in The New Yorker that day by George Packer, who said Obama should watch this film before he gives his speech tonight. I do think we need to look back on these events and make sure that we're not making similar decisions that are going to end up leading to the same place.


Two words resonate with me after seeing your film for the second time—one is “forgiveness” and the other is “betrayal.” Regarding the latter word, all the American interviewees were coming to terms with a sense of betrayal; the ones on the ground were trying their best to be heroic because America had let Vietnam down. There was also the implicit forgiveness among the Vietnamese you interviewed. I’m not sure if or when “forgiveness” or “betrayal” will ever figure in the conversations about Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yes, and I think those are interesting associations and we'll see how it plays out. I think that Obama is grappling with this, because he, you, we started getting out of Iraq and then there are all these people who are so desperate and who worked with us. What are you going to do? And then you get back into Iraq and now ISIS, but what is our endgame and how are we ultimately going to get out and who's going to fill that void, and will we take on ISIS? How is that going to be resolved?

I don't feel like I know the answers to that and I feel like those are basic questions that this film raises, that makes connections to what's going on now. You have to know your exit strategy and what's going to happen to the people who are left behind. Those are important questions.


You can see Last Days in Vietnam at DocuDay LA, the IDA's annual celebration of the feature and short documentary films nominated for the Academy Award®. The film will screen at 5:25 p.m. on Saturday, February 21 at the Writer's Guild of America Theater.

Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.