Rory Kennedy's cinematic take on Vietnam heroes, victims

Monday , October 20, 2014 - 4:50 PM

By NANCY VAN VALKENBURG, Standard-Examiner staff

This Standard-Examiner interview originally was published in January 2014 as a preview for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam.” The documentary opens Oct. 17 at the Broadway Centre, in Salt Lake City.

OGDEN — Filmmaker Rory Kennedy knows about tragedy and triumph.

She was born six months after father Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination while he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her uncle, Pres. John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in five years earlier. And cousin John Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law, all died in a small plane crash while heading to Rory Kennedy’s 1999 wedding.

But Rory Kennedy also comes from a family known for quiet dignity, and especially for public service. Her own contribution to the larger world is through documentary filmmaking. Her latest, “Last Days in Vietnam,” premieres at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and includes an Ogden screening.

“I grew up in a family committed to service and giving back,” Kennedy told the Standard-Examiner. “There’s a commitment to trying to make the world a better place. It certainly effected the way I grew up and who I am.”

Her legacy also shaped her career choice.

“I think my passion for storytelling also comes from my family and upbringing. I also grew up at a time when cable was really exploding, and there seemed to be opportunity. Media is a powerful way of reaching audiences, and making change. I started making documentaries right out of college, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I continue to learn so much with each film I make, and I continue to love it.

“And the Vietnam War was a hugely important part of our recent history, with a lot of lessons we can still learn.”

“Last Days in Vietnam” centers on the 1975 fall of Saigon. The film uses no narration to tell the story, only interviews with people who were there or played key roles. The film uses multiple perspectives to explore the fall, the political conditions that contributed to it, and what followed.

“It was chaotic in the last 24 hours, with the ticking clock and troops coming from the north,” Kennedy said. “Who will get out and who will not? Those decisions were being made on the ground.”

The heart of the story is the United States service men who risked their lives to evacuate Americans. Troops also risked their careers by going against orders to save local embassy workers likely to be executed by the approaching army due to affiliation with Americans. Kennedy’s film also chronicles and survivors’ deep, lingering guilt that they could not save more people.

Military officials nearby on U.S. aircraft carriers saved many more fleeing South Vietnamese people who arrived in helicopters, which crews emptied and pushed overboard to make room for more landings.

The people’s fears were well founded. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese citizens would be killed over the coming months by North Vietnamese troops.

“Very few people know much about what happened,” Kennedy said. “When I started this project a little over a year ago, I didn’t know a lot. As I learned more about it, I got an appreciation of the importance of this time period. It’s an important story to tell.”

The film uses background music to capture tension, and taps sources’ vivid memories, combined with vintage photos and footage. Sundance programmers have called the effect riveting, and selected this film as one several to be screened for high school students, although it’s not the one local students will view together at Peery’s Egyptian Theater.

“It talks about how we got there and what happened,” Kennedy said, of the film. “Both are timely as we are trying to get out of two wars now, and are considering other wars. It’s a powerful story.”

The documentary eventually will screen on PBS, and Kennedy hopes it can be made available for in-school screenings as well. For upcoming news on the film, visit

“It’s certainly a film that highlights the heroism of a group of people who acted very bravely in the final days, in the context of tragedy,” Kennedy said. “So much about Vietnam is a disappointment, and the larger story of us abandoning Vietnam is a sad one. The film itself celebrates heroism of those on the ground who went against U.S. policy and did everything they could.”

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or Follow her on Twitter at @SE_NancyVanV.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.