Rory Kennedy: Last Days in Vietnam holds lessons on how to end, or how not to end, a war

Rory Kennedy
Rory Kennedy

Bobby Kennedy campaigned for president on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, but he didn’t live to see the end of that conflict. Now, his daughter Rory Kennedy has created a film that explores the fall of Saigon, and which just may inform American forces’ exit from contemporary conflicts. Last Days In Vietnam this Friday will act as the Opening Night film for the Sarasota Film Festival, but in advance of her visit to the Suncoast, Kennedy spoke with SRQ about the messages she hopes today’s leaders glean from the film.Kennedy was just six years old when the Vietnam war wound to a close. The Fall of Saigon took place April 30, 1975, ending one the lengthiest military conflicts in American history, but the specter of the war has loomed over American foreign policy ever since. It’s impressive in many ways to consider that this conflict in a remote land has so shaped American culture in its wake, but the costs of the war on people here were outsized as well.

“So many Americans died, and that alone has left its scar,” Kennedy says. “And everybody was recruited to go to that war, regardless of class and race lines. People were more empowered and had opinions to express. And it lasted so long… It looms large because its impacts have been so large.”

Military estimates show more than 58,000 Americans were killed in action, and even though much of the conflict happened before Kennedy was born, she could see the historical significance of the war in everything from media attention to music on the radio. “There is a value to understanding what happened in that war,” she says. “And it’s worth looking at those final days and consider how you get out of a war, or perhaps how one shouldn’t get out of the war.”

Kennedy was approached the American Experience program about pulling together a documentary on the Fall of Saigon. At first, she hesitated precisely because the topic of Vietnam had been showcased so often on film, but as she looked into the idea, she was struck by the stories of individual soldiers who were figuring out how to execute an exit strategy while also doing right by the people of Vietnam.

Last Days in Vietnam
Last Days in Vietnam

“What excited me was uncovering these stories of Americans who in the final days went against U.S. policy to get us out of the country, risking their lives often,” she says. “It all felt pretty extraordinary.” Diplomats and soldiers worked in the final hours of the American presence in Vietnam to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible before the famous images came to fruition of soldiers taking the last helicopters out.

A great appeal to the story for Kennedy as a filmmaker was the built-in countdown to the end of the war. Congressional gridlock, mixed diplomatic messages and other activity on the group contribute to the story, building tension as the movie plays out.

But on a grander scale, Kennedy would like deeper consideration to be made by U.S. leaders today on what must be taken into consideration when one enters or exits a military endeavor. “As we look at departures from Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to consider issues like what happens to the people we leave behind,” she says. “But also as we are looking at entering places like Syria, we need to understand what it means to go to war, to look at our obligations long-term. There is a huge amount of relevance to this subject today, particularly for young people who didn’t experience this first-hand.”

It also was critical to Kennedy that someone tell this story while the individuals involved were alive to give first-hand accounts. Many of the individuals who were present for the true last days in Vietnam sit down with Kennedy for this film.

The movie also brings Kennedy back to Sarasota for the second time in three years. She attended the Sarasota Film Festival in 2012 with Ethel, a documentary about her mother Ethel Kennedy and the often tragic seat she occupied to watch the turbulent 1960s unfold. Ethel ended up winning the Audience Award in for Best Documentary at the Sarasota festival that year. Today, Kennedy speaks of her visit to Sarasota with great fondness.

“They are very nice to filmmakers. They do great outreach. The audiences are really engaged,” Kennedy says. “I like the people who run it and was very happy they chose to include my film this year and use as their Opening Night film.”

Kennedy will be in Sarasota on Opening Night to discuss the film with event-goers and attend the Opening Night party at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The film screens at 7pm on Friday, April 4, and the party officially starts at 9pm.

As for Last Days in Vietnam, Kennedy is already in talks for a broad theatrical release, likely in August, with the movie headed to at least 16 markets.

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