Rory Kennedy on ‘Last Days in Vietnam,’ the Parallels Between Vietnam and Iraq, and Ferguson

Rory Kennedy, acclaimed filmmaker—and daughter of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy—on her latest documentary chronicling the U.S.’s exit from Vietnam, and more.

09.01.14 10:45 AM ET

They call her “The Quiet Kennedy.” Rory Kennedy, the youngest of eleven children to the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) and Ethel Kennedy, doesn’t seem to share some of her siblings’ passion for the limelight but does, in her own discreet way, share their passion for social justice. For Rory, this seemingly inherent appetite for altruism is sated through the medium of documentary film, where the 45-year-old filmmaker has tackled issues ranging from AIDS (Pandemic: Facing AIDS), the Iraq War (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib), and turning the lens on her own family, in Ethel.

Her latest film, Last Days in Vietnam, opens in select theaters on Sept. 5. The documentary chronicles the last few days—in particular, the last 24 hours—of the Vietnam War. With the North Vietnamese Army closing in on Saigon, a group of besieged American soldiers and diplomats tried their best to beat back against the White House’s order to only evacuate U.S. citizens, instead trying to save as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible. Kennedy’s film includes interviews with diplomats, soldiers, and helicopter pilots who were all on the ground at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as well as several South Vietnamese who were left behind and forced into reeducation camps—some for as long as a decade—by the NVA.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Kennedy spoke to The Daily Beast about the disturbing similarities between our exit strategy in Vietnam and that of Iraq, the dire situation in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown killing, and much more.

Why did you feel the need to make a documentary about the final days of the Vietnam War?

The executive producer for the project, Mark Samels, had approached me to do a film about the last days in Vietnam. I’ve always been interested in Vietnam, feel it’s a seminal event in our nation’s history, and have explored it over the years—but I hadn’t been interested in doing a documentary about it. I felt there had been a lot done about Vietnam, and didn’t know if I could add anything new to the discussion. Then, after doing research, I learned that there was a lot more to the event that took place. The final days were, collectively, an extraordinarily dramatic moment, and when I came across the stories of the people on the ground who’d gone against U.S. policy—which was just to get the Americans out of Vietnam, since Saigon was falling very quickly—and risked their lives to save the Vietnamese, I didn’t feel that story had been told in any significant way. A lot of people feel they’re familiar with the events through the iconic photo of the helicopter leaving the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but a lot of people I talked to while making the film didn’t really know what had happened. In addition, I felt the film was really timely given our departures from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Your late father, former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, proposed a three-point plan to end the Vietnam War in March 1967. Is that part of the reason why you’re fascinated by it?

Well, 52,000 Americans died, and it was also tied up in the 1960s protest movement. I think that the war itself, and the lessons that we can learn from that war, are still enormously relevant. As you look at what’s happening in Iraq in the last couple of months—the last six weeks or so, particularly—it really feels like it’s an echo of what happened in Saigon in 1975. We can learn how you get out of a war and what kind of questions should be raised in entering into a war by how we extract ourselves. And we clearly haven’t learned them yet.

What parallels do you see between the shoddy job we did exiting Vietnam, and the shoddy job we’ve done in exiting Iraq?

There’s a great op-ed piece by Kurt Johnson, who runs The List Project, that I recommend everyone read. He was talking about how he’s been trying to get out of Iraq who were our allies, who are now subject to torture and their families are being killed because of their alliance to the United States. They’re on a long list that’s caught up in the bureaucracy of Washington, and they’re not getting out of the country. President Obama campaigned, in part, on the claim that he’d make sure these people would be given safe haven and that we’d look out for our allies, and it’s not happening in any widespread manner. We have a responsibility to the people who we’ve left behind.

Now, there’s the recent awful news of James Foley, the journalist who was beheaded by ISIS. A terrorist organization like ISIS emerging does also seem to be a byproduct of the poor job we did in exiting Iraq.

It’s horrible. So horrible. And yes. I don’t know if I would draw direct parallels in that manner, because I’m not sure the North Vietnamese government that took over after Vietnam were the evil villains that they were depicted to be, or that they had the long-term implications that people feared in having the communist regime take over. And we’re now allied with Vietnam against China. But I do think that going back to the people who are on the ground, and how they’re impacted from our presence—and then we withdraw from the presence—is significant. You can’t prove it, but would the Vietnamese have been better off if we’d never been there? I think there’s an argument to be made that they would have, and I think that’s probably true of Iraq, too.

You very publicly endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, but a lot of people seem to be losing faith at this point—especially with regard to Iraq and some of his foreign policy decision-making.

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I think that there are certainly decisions he’s made that have been limited, and that I’m disappointed in. But I think Iraq was Bush and Cheney’s war, and it’s important for them to bear the responsibility for being there. This is, in part, the lesson of the Vietnam War—once you got to the point we got to in April of 1975, there are very few options that are available. That’s where we are with Iraq. Now, Obama’s going back in there in what he claims is an isolated manner. Is that the best option? I don’t know if that’s the best option. I feel for the people on the top of the hill, and I think it’s important to save the people who we got into this mess. The reality is that there are no good options. With Obama going back into Iraq and with ISIS, viscerally I feel like we should do this, but can we think this through? What’s the plan? What’s the end goal? How long are we going to do this for, and how are we going to get out? Those discussions aren’t happening in a deep and thoughtful manner.

But going back to original question about Obama, I do have some disappointments in Obama. I do think he’s had a tough go of it with the extremists on the Republican side and the Tea Party movement, which has made navigating Washington near-impossible. He hasn’t done a great job working with our own party and I don’t want to let him off the hook entirely, but when there are so many people in positions of power whose only goal is to undermine Obama, and to not have the government work for the people, is a unique position to be in over these last eight years.

Do you think the rise of the Tea Party and the constant obstruction—“undermining,” as you put it—that Obama’s faced is, to a degree, born out of racism? Or is it purely political?

I don’t really see it coming out of racism as much. I think there are pockets of it. I think if Hillary was there, it would be the same thing—and then it could be born out of sexism, I suppose. But I think it’s what the Democrats represent overall and their ideals more than the particular person that’s articulating them. Although the fact that he’s African-American probably galvanized certain pockets on the far right wing to be more motivated to undermine him, so that level of racism certainly exists, but I wouldn’t say it’s a defining factor with the Republican Party.

Your documentary work has frequently touched on the issues of class and race in America, and the situation in Ferguson is pretty dire. What’s your take on the situation there? It seems to be very representative of many underlying issues regarding class and race in America.

It’s terrible, but I think it’s important that we’re all paying attention to it. Obviously, there was this incident of a young, unarmed African-American man who was shot by a white police officer six times. Those are the facts, and they’re very upsetting facts in and of themselves. But I think the reason it’s galvanized such a big response—both in the immediate surroundings and nationally—is that it’s a touch point that indicates a larger social challenge that we all need to mull over and try to grapple with in a thoughtful and considerate way, and I think it has to do both with race and class. Those are issues that we still remain very challenged by as a country, and all of us need to look at ourselves, and look at our own participation in that, and use this as a moment of deeper reflection—and hopefully come out on the other side.

Part of the reason the situation there seems to have escalated to such a degree is that police forces these days are so militarized—really resembling an army. I still don’t know why police officers would need to wear camo in an urban environment. But we now have all this surplus military weaponry going to police forces.

Yes, I think that’s right. It does, and certainly has, helped to escalate the crisis by having this militaristic response to it. Going back to trying to get to some of the underlying issues, addressing those, recognizing them, and helping the community feel like their voices are being heard and their feelings are being heard and that justice is going to be served and communicating that in a thoughtful and respectful manner, is probably a more tactical approach than having a military response.

On a lighter note, I read that you recently attended your brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding to Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines. I saw the funniest picture of Larry David dressed so Larry David attending the wedding.

He’s been a very close friend to my brother, Bobby, over the last ten years, so we’ve all gotten to know him and collectively, we all appreciate Larry David. It’s definitely a comical fit. [Laughs] But he’s hilarious, and we all appreciate him.

Speaking of Bobby, he recently called into question the “lone gunman” ruling of the Warren Commission when it comes to the JFK assassination. What’s your take on it?

I think I’d rather not go there.

Back to Last Days in Vietnam. How did you manage to track down all the subjects that were on the ground during it?

We interviewed maybe 27 people for the film on camera, and we went through the process of doing generalized research about the events that took place and trying to get a handle on the people on the ground who’d have firsthand accounts of what happened, and once we honed in on our story, me, my producer Keven McAlester, and my husband Mark Bailey wrote a 20-page treatment. Ultimately, we felt like the story was in the last 24 hours, and looking at the people who tried to do their best to get the Vietnamese out, and the Vietnamese people who were left behind, and what happened to them.

You’ve dedicated a lot of your time and work to documentary film. How effective do you feel the medium is in campaigning for social justice and elevating social consciousness?

I think it can be really powerful, and one of the reasons I love making films is I do feel they can reach beyond the statistics and the numbers and the complexities of a particular issue and really highlight the humanity in a way that an article or newspaper story might not be able to do. When you’re able to bring these stories into the homes of potentially millions of Americans, it can provide some adjustments to understanding a particular issue, and deepening their appreciation of how events came to be, and things got to where they are.

It’s also, when not in the right hands, a pretty powerful tool for manipulation. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the work of Dinesh D’Souza, but his “documentaries,” like Obama’s America or America, seem to rake in millions of dollars.

Listen, I think that there are people who listen to Fox News and only listen to Fox News, and there are people who are interested in only hearing a very particular, one-sided story, and it’s important for us to reach those people and show them another side. Thank God we have the First Amendment and people are able to say what they want, and assert what they want, and hopefully you have an informed public so that they can see through that and it becomes more transparent. It’s about educating people so they can make decisions based on facts, and not skewed representations that our clearly untrue.

But people like Dinesh D’Souza must be hurting the documentary filmmaking medium as a whole by using it to, essentially, push propaganda.

I don’t think anybody really pays that much attention. Maybe we should pay more attention to him, but he’s not in the rounds of legitimate documentary filmmakers.

What are you working on now?

I have two films coming out later this year that’s a part of this series called Makers, so I did a film about women in Hollywood, and a film about women in politics. With women in Hollywood, I didn’t direct it but I produced it, and what we did is followed the money of Hollywood and how that intersects with issues relating to women and, frankly, sexism. If you go back 80 years, women were thriving in the industry and there were over 30 female directors. Then, when the talkies came around and the studios starting raking in money, that number went down to two female directors in the course of three or four years. Today, there are women directors in independent film, documentaries, and television, but when you get to the big tentpole movies with $100 million budgets, there are basically none, and you have statistics that of the top 250 grossing films in Hollywood, only six percent of them were directed by women.

It’s crazy what happened to Catherine Hardwicke, who in the course of five or six years went from directing Twilight to getting so chewed up by Hollywood that she’s now directing basically straight-to-video fare.

Right. And you have a male director with one film out of Sundance who gets to direct The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s a phenomenon, it’s real, and we need to do something about it.