At Sundance in January 2014, festival perennial Rory Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Graib," "Ethel"), the 11th daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, took a standing ovation bow at the end of her screening of "Last Days in Vietnam." The documentary is a shocker because you think you know what it’s about–how the U.S. left Saigon in a hurry at the end of the Vietnam War–but it’s more than that. It’s about a group of maverick heroes who went against military authority to save countless lives. It’s about people trying to do good, for a change. And succeeding. The film is moving; it was no surprise that many of the folks on the Yarrow stage were in tears.
The centerpiece of the film is the valiant efforts of the captain and crew of the U.S.S. Kirk to save helicopter refugees, pushing each copter overboard into the sea as a new one comes in–until a giant twin rotor Chinook hovers overhead. At which point its passengers jump out the window and are caught by the crew on the deck, starting with a trusting mother throwing her baby. The pilot has to hold the copter steady while his family jumps one by one; then he removes his flight suit, rolls the copter, and dives into the water. He makes it onto the boat. It’s heart-stopping stuff, captured on video by one of the crew–and found in an attic decades later and painstakingly restored.
Ultimately the Kirk had to deal with 30,000 people and no medical supplies, says Paul Jacobs, who was the ship’s captain. "After 39 years it’s still a sad story, but she did a good job. One good thing that came out of it: I got to meet her mother!" One of the kids who jumped to safety is also at Sundance. "I first met this young man when he jumped out of the helicopter. We located his father, who had Alzheimer’s, brought him to Washington DC in July 2010, we decided that his country was gone, and our country couldn’t do anything. So we made him an air medal from the USS Kirk Association and presented a citation to his dad, pinned the medal on his chest. He pushed himself up and saluted the admiral."
"The captain and the crew of Kirk are heroes," replies the son. "Our family was rescued and we moved to Guam after a church in Seattle sponsored us." Others had their own struggles getting to the U.S. But that is one of many stories –including an in-depth interview with ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger–that Kennedy didn’t have time to tell in a 97-minute feature. It took extraordinary discipline to narrow her focus to the rescue effort.
"This film has lot of lessons that apply to some of challenges us facing today," said Kennedy. "One of the big ones is to have an exit strategy planned out when you go into a war. Think that through from the beginning. You can see what it takes to get out of a war, it’s such an investment, a responsibility, when you leave a country, you’re potentially abandoning a people. When you leave a war, those responsibilities don’t end."
Kennedy was approached to do the film by Mark Samuels of "American Experience." She was interested. "Vietnam obviously has alway been of interest to me, it’s an important part of our history," she says. "This chapter hasn’t been told. I was happy to be able to tell it."
Kennedy came to show the film at Sneak Previews.
Anne Thompson: When this came to you from Mark Samuels were you instantly excited by it?
Rory Kennedy: Yes. I’ve always been very passionate about the subject of Vietnam. But I felt that there had been a lot of coverage of Vietnam, and my initial response was, “Could I offer something new and different to what was already out there?” I then started doing research about these final days and exactly what happened, and realized there was so much I didn’t know that I thought I knew.
And talking to people who are well-informed people, who are passionate about history, focused on history — very few people know what happened. The events were so inherently dramatic and important, so I was pulled in pretty quickly. And then when I started uncovering the stories of these heroes who had really risked their lives and gone against American policy to get the Vietnamese out of the country, then I was totally hooked. I felt like, "this is a story I’ve never heard of, nobody I knew had heard of, that really needed to be told."
Why do we respond so emotionally to these heroes and what they did? They have so much honor. It’s almost as though we’ve become inured to people not having that quality. It also appeals to our attraction for people who go against authority.
Yes. And I like those kinds of people. [Laughs] Part of it is the wave of history moving against these people. You have the history of the Vietnam War; you have the decisions made in the White House with Ford and Kissinger; you have Congress and the voters. This tidal wave. The North Vietnamese coming in, and it’s all moving against the people on the ground. And, yet, in the face of this enormous wave, heading in one direction, these Americans are making a decision to do the right thing.
How in your research did you come across this extraordinary event on the U.S.S. Kirk. How did you find that amazing footage?
We had, in archiving research in this film, gone to ABC, NBC, all the archival sources and tried to dig as deep as we could, so we weren’t sharing similar images as people had seen before. When I was developing this film and had a sense of what the story was — and I knew about the Kirk — I was also doing screenings of my previous film, “Ethel,” up and down the East Coast. I was inviting people who I wanted to be a part of this film, so that I could meet them and introduce them to my work. At one of the screenings in D.C., there was a guy named Jan Herman who was familiar with this story of the U.S.S. Kirk, because he worked in the Navy’s historical preservation department. He came back to me and said, “I was talking to a fellow who was on the Kirk three or four months ago, and he said he had just been up in his attic, and there was a box of 8mm film footage that he had taken while he was on the Kirk in 1975. Would you be interested in that?”
Did you jump up and down frantically?
I was, like, “Yes, I would be interested! Can you give me his number?” I called him at 9 o’clock the next morning. I was then back in L.A., and I said, “I heard about this. Can I see it?” He wouldn’t let us FedEx it because he was very protective of it, but he was willing to share it. I sent him an airplane ticket and flew him out, and we developed the footage. So twelve minutes of what you see in this 97-minute movie is his footage.
That’s a lot. He shot everything. He shot the bullet holes, throwing the baby out the window.
It’s a lot. Yeah, the bullet holes and the story and the helicopters being thrown overboard and, at the end, all those images of the ships that are overcrowded. That’s all of his footage. Medical ships going out to save other ships, that’s all him. The flag going up and down. So we all have him to really thank, because he, I think, enabled us to tell this story that, I hope, can really reach an audience and, I hope, help people feel like they’re there and living through it.
You found the son, the surviving son who was thrown. How did he land, the son?
He was caught. I think it ended up that they had, like, thirteen people, so they had the five kids who were thrown and the mother, and then there were a number of other people who were also there, and I think the worst that happened was that another person broke an ankle. So they caught every single one of them, and it was an amazing feat.
Did you have to use some reenactments in there, just to get “everything,” or is it all legitimate footage? Not that reenactments are un-honorable.
No, no, no. I’ve done reenactments and thought I was going to do reenactments for this, because I didn’t know how we were going to cover a lot of this until I found Dan. But we didn’t end up doing any reenactments.
But what you did do, though, were some computer graphics and the dramatic map of the approaching North Vietnamese army.
Yes, and the geography of the story, orienting audiences, was really important, and I wanted to do that as efficiently as possible. Our graphic designer helps to orient people. What I wanted to do as quickly as possible was get to the story of the Americans saving people. The first 20 minutes of the film, where we’re trying to lay out where we are in Vietnam, was really challenging because people are coming to this story with different reference points, different sense of history, different ages. So, even for people who lived during that time, you have to remind them and get that across clearly. We don’t have a narrator.
Why is that?
We both don’t have a narrator and we don’t have any so-called “experts,” so we don’t have anybody who wasn’t there. We don’t have anybody who looks back, has studied this, and can kind of put the pieces together in a way where they’ve kind of processed it and written about it. We only have people who were on the ground, and so the film is a bit of a nail-biter — you’re sitting at the edge of your seat, asking what’s going to happen next. We tried to show the audience what the people who were documenting knew at that time. To not give out information that we know, in retrospect, looking back.
All primary sources.
Yes. So it’s really emphasizing those primary sources, and hopefully building a film where you feel present — where you feel like you can identity with what’s going on and go through it as they did. If you can do that successfully, then you can help an audience transport themselves into this experience. It’s hard to do. It’s challenging, and it was really a bear of an edit. But I think when you put a narrator in there and get this sort of “Voice of God” telling you, it can feel like you’re being told what to feel and to think, and it can be sort of patronizing, and it takes you out of the moment.
How do you feel about Michael Moore, Alex Gibney and Kirby Dick, who become the narrators?
Well, listen: I narrated “Ethel,” and it’s not like I have a bee in my bonnet against narrators. This series I’m working on, “Makers,” about women, that’s heavily narrated. It’s not that I oppose narration, but I do think that if you can build a film without it, it ultimately can be more powerful. But there’s a time and a place for narrators, and they have a role. I’ve used it, and it can help. I certainly think, when you’re making a personal film — like Michael Moore does, or, in some cases, Kirby Dick —or if you have a point of view, they can make sense and it can be powerful to have that voice in there. I’m really not opposed to it, and I really feel like, with every film, you have to figure out what that film wants to be. It’s never obvious, it’s never transparent, and it’s always really difficult to make these films. Part of that is because there’s no formula to them, and I think a narrator works sometimes.
You’ve done this a long time and become good at it. You have certain assistants, a good team: research, the archivists, and the writing team, which includes your husband, Mark Bailey.
Yes. My husband and I, we have three children and moved out to California five years ago. My team has changed because of living here, and I used to live in Brooklyn, New York, and my partner over the last fifteen years is Liz Garbus, who’s a really talented filmmaker and is still a close friend. We still have the same company that we make our films through, but we’re less entangled with each other. So I had to rebuild a team out here.
My husband writes my films. He’s my partner, and on this project played an enormous role, particularly in the edit, which was challenging. Kevin McAlester, the producer, was also a writer and producer and played a big role digging into the story, and what story we wanted to tell. Before shooting this film, we put together about a 20-page treatment which he was a significant part of writing and helping to formulate.
Particularly with historical documentaries
, when you can have a handle on the facts — unlike a vérité story, where you’re following it and don’t know where it can lead — there’s a lot to be said for going through that process of figuring out the story before you start shooting it and editing, putting it on paper.
I imagine some big bulletin board with cards and whatnot, like a police procedural covered in arrows.
Yes. We have this color-coded set of what’s going on, and a timeline — we have all of those things on the wall. One of the things about this story is that it’s really confusing, as to what happened. We’ve read all this firsthand source material and they all contradict each other, because there was so much confusion on the ground at the time — before the Internet, before computers, and before people could communicate clearly. So it was very hard to get a handle on the events that took place, how they took place, and when they took place.
In talking to Kissinger, one of the biggest issues was, for example: they decided to start the helicopter airlift. They said, “Okay, we’re going to send the helicopters at 11 a.m.,” and they were operating on Greenwich time instead of Vietnamese time, and so the helicopters arrived three hours after they were supposed to. Then someone’s reading what time it is, which conflicts with what time it actually was, because the times you’re reading are contradictory.
Some people we interviewed, who were there, said there was nobody outside of the embassy. And then you see the footage, and everybody else says there were tens of thousands of people outside the embassy. On one entrance, there were tens of thousands of people; on another entrance, there weren’t. And how many people were inside of the embassy at the time, and how did those people get in? We don’t know that, so how do we communicate that? Well, we’ll have to get somebody to say it was very hard to know how many people were inside the embassy. It was hard to navigate what’s important and what people need to know, and what leads to the story we really wanted to tell.
So how does it work with your research team? Do you request a document and have them get it?
Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Really, on this project, we had a fantastic new editor who we flew out to L.A. and then Mark and Kevin and I were in the edit room together. We figured out how we wanted to tell this story. What are the through lines and events that took place? When did the airport actually get bombed? When was the decision made to start the airlift? Was the decision made at the airport, but it was a different part of the airport, and then it moved to the embassy because people couldn’t get out to the airport? So that becomes a really complicated story. How do you tell that story? We kind of streamlined that story, because it didn’t end up being so relevant, and so we have a longer version of it in the film, where we unpack that more.
But that was a challenge, and then, for example, these activities were not legal — this was against U.S. policies, these activities, and Vietnamese policies. So where do we find that document, right? That was a huge challenge, to find that. We went through the Ford Library and back to Vietnam, to our sources there, and ended up finding it in a manual that says this is against Vietnamese law, but you have to find the language to show that. We really wanted that source material in there, to support what the film was asserting.
Did you show the film to Kissinger and other involved parties? You had a wonderful Q & A at Sundance, where you had the captain of the Kirk.
None of them had seen the movie before, and I asked them to come up. The Vietnamese who was one of the 420 left behind, was onstage. Stu Harrington said, “I live my life in fear of running into one of these 420 people.” And then it turned out he was onstage with one of these people. And he said to Stu, “I just want you to know: I forgive you.” It was such a beautiful moment. We were all weeping.
Well, you must have felt a lot of responsibility to get it right for all those people.
Yeah. Well, you know, it feels like an important story — an important story in history. I feel, not to oversell it, that it’s a slight adjustment in the understanding of Vietnam for a lot of people, and understanding these events to know that, in this very dark moment in American history, there were a handful of Americans who did the right thing. There’s something about it that kind of changes, slightly, the way I see Vietnam, anyway.
It also brings up the issue of timeliness, and the way we are seeing a lot of these things replayed in different ways.
I think that another part of my interests in making this film is, in the moment of withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan — the questions that this moment in history raises echo, very much, what we’re going through, particularly in Iraq. There was a guy — ironically, his name is Kirk Johnson — who runs The List Project, where he’s been trying to get people out of Iraq. The President and the Congress are getting people stuck there and they’re not getting people out, these people who have been documented as being at risk.
It’s the exact same thing, and he has been knocking on the doors, doing everything he can and then telling these stories of people who are left behind and whose children have been killed. Just horrible, heart-wrenching stories, and it’s one of the reasons why we must re-read history, learn, and try not to follow these mistakes we’ve made in the past.
Have you had some screenings of this in Washington?
The film screened as part of the AFI Film Festival there, which is outside of DC. There were two screenings there and then we’re having a screening with the Washington Post on September 10th, prior to its theatrical release in Washington, which will be Friday, September 12th.
And you’re opening around the country.
Yes. We’re opening in New York on September 5th, L.A. in the middle of September, and then we’re going to be in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Florida, Detroit — over 15 cities.
The music plays a role in the emotion.
This is a composer who lives in the Pacific Palisades, named Gary Lionelli, who I’ve never worked with before but hope to work with many times in the future. He went off on his own and did not give me much time to give any feedback — which made me very, very anxious, but then he delivered the score, which I gave very few notes to, because he nailed it. It turns out he has a Vietnamese daughter, who he adopted, and the film spoke to him in a very emotional way. Part of the language of figuring out what a film needs and wants at a particular moment is being in-tune with the emotional intention of that moment. This is not just a “background” score — it’s part of the experience of watching this film, being held up by that score in just the right way.
Audience: Has there been any feedback about making a film about these heroes who went against orders because it was right?
I haven’t gotten any negative feedback from that. It’s interesting. If I could take a moment to tell a story: one of the people who we filmed for this I was very sad not to include, because he had a very compelling story. It was a guy named Lionel Rosenblatt, and he worked for the State Department, and saw what was happening in Vietnam and served in Vietnam. He had counterparts in Vietnam and knew they would be killed if they didn’t get out, so he pressed the government, in April, to do everything they could to get these guys out. They said, “There’s nothing we can do, and no Americans can go in to Vietnam right now who work for the government.” He said, “I have to go in there — these guys are going to die.” They said, “Absolutely not. You can’t go in.”
So he called the next morning, the office, and said, “I’m terribly, terribly sick and I can’t come in to work today.” He got on the last PanAm flight — and he was dressed as a French businessman — he went to Saigon, he went to the embassy, and he ran into Joe McBride, who was the guy in the film who got people out through the buses that he took to the boats. Joe McBride saw him and said, “Don’t walk into that embassy another foot; there are pictures of you everywhere and they’re going to arrest you. You’re not supposed to be here.” He turned around, and he set up a black op, and he got 450 people who were hired as Vietnamese, who were basically CIA operatives, and he got them out on cargo flights. Then he stayed there for another six days with a guy, and then he left, and he went back to the United States.
But at this point there had been press conferences. Kissinger held a press conference saying that what he did was illegal, this was not acceptable behavior, and he publicly reprimanded Rosenblatt. When Rosenblatt arrived, he called him into his office and was there with his deputy, and everybody thought he was going to be fired or thrown into jail. He was a bit anxious about going into this interview, and I asked Kissinger about it, when I interviewed him — he agreed to this entire assessment. So I said, “When he came into your office, what was your response to him?” He said, “I looked him in the eyes and I told him he was my greatest hero.”
That must have hurt not to use that story.
Not only that, but he was weeping when he said that, so it was really, really hard. But first of all, his timeline was off from the rest of our film, so it was hard to fit the story in. Then it was very hard to deal with Kissinger being emotional without making a whole film about it.
Audience: Have you and your family discussed how different things would have been if your uncle had lived into a second term?
It’s not something that we talk about amongst ourselves, per se. Specifically in terms of Vietnam, my sense is that he probably would have gotten out of Vietnam. Historians and experts argue both sides of it. Knowing the person my uncle was, and how he felt about wars and conflict, I think he would’ve done everything he could have. Also, during those final days of his life, in those last weeks of his life, he was really honing in on the feeling we needed to withdraw from Vietnam. He articulated that.
I can’t say, definitely, that he would’ve gotten out of Vietnam. My father ran for President because he wanted to get out of Vietnam. That was the reason he chose to run in 1968. That was, ultimately, a change of position he had. So, I can’t… who’s to say?
Audience: Were there any bombshells that got dropped where you went back and re-interviewed anybody? Were there any that came to light that it was just really surprising didn’t make it into the film?
There were some moments in the Kissinger interview where it was very tempting to kind of unpack, a little bit more, what he said, and his feelings about the war, and his views of what happened. It kept veering into policy, and I wanted to steer away from that as much as possible, because I didn’t want to get away from these stories. But there’s a fascinating film to be made in looking at and exploring these policies — understanding what information they had and what miscommunications were and why decisions were made when they were, and what kind of politics went into those decisions. I’m fascinated with that area, and so it was very hard not to be pulled into it, because it was there for the taking.
And there are so many great stories of what happened after, on May 1st, and what happened to these Vietnamese. This story of the diaspora coming to the Philippines and Guam, and what happened when they came to this country. We’re actually putting that together, on our website, because it’s such a fascinating history, so I think there could be ten films made for this period of time, alone, let alone the entire war with Vietnam.
Audience: Did you run into any resistance, either from government officials or individuals who didn’t want to risk damaging our immaculate image?
There was definitely resistance. The person who was most resistant was Kissinger; he took the most powers of persuasion to get to participate in the film, but ultimately he came around, which was great. Most of the people whose stories we were documenting, there was some skepticism and reservation, and there were some politics of, “Well, if you’re going to interview this person I don’t want to be a part of the film, because their version of events is so skewed,” and so on and so forth. There was some resistance, but, ultimately, everybody who we asked agreed to participate.
My hope and intention was to go to Vietnam, which we didn’t end up doing because, really, our story wasn’t the right one. The consensus was, talking to people in this country who have both spent a lot of time in Vietnam as well as those people in Vietnam, that there was no way I was going to get people who had been in South Vietnam and had been in reeducation camps and had been treated badly or whose family had been killed, that none of them would talk to us. That people in the country still fear the government and I said, even if we hide their identity and faces, no way — that’s not going to happen.
And then I considered going to interview people who had been part of the North Vietnamese military, to get their perspective, and I felt like, really, what we wanted to say about the North was that they were coming in and they were winning. The nuance of how they went about doing that and what the strategy was, it really wasn’t our story. I was disappointed, but I’m hoping we’ll at least be able to do a screening there.
I think this shows us that, for every 90-minute movie, there’s probably ten movies we didn’t see, and that it requires a lot of discipline. Thank you.