At last Saturday’s lively and informative annual Women’s Panel – expertly moderated by Madelyn Hammond – at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival , filmmaker Rory Kennedy had the capacity crowd roaring when she offered her brother Christopher’s two part definition of the kind of movies she makes: “Depressing . And more depressing”. That is not entirely the case for this veteran of more than 25 docs including her landmark HBO portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy in Ethel. But nothing she had done before could prepare us for the power and sheer brilliance of her latest, the Oscar-nominated feature Documentary , Last Days In Vietnam, which chronicles the final waning moments when we had to abandon Vietnam for good, heartbreakingly leaving behind hundreds of South Vietnamese refugees trying to get out, but abandoned at the last minute. The film was made under the ausopices of PBS’ American Experience and though it faces tough, well-funded competition in the Oscar race, Kennedy hopes it just has a chance somehow to be seen by voters before they cast their ballots.
The other contenders have big bucks behind them including Netflix’s Virunga, Radius/TWC’s Citizenfour , Sundance Selects Finding Vivian Maier and Sony Pictures Classic’s Wm Wenders acclaimed film , Salt Of The Earth. “I go to these outside events and I just feel like there’s so much money , and there are billboards everywhere, and ads all over HBO, and there’s people having huge parties in New York and I’m just basically trying to get people to watch my film. That’s my strategy because I feel like if they watch it then they are going to want to vote for it. I know it is a cliche but I do feel like I’m thrilled to be nominated, and I think all of this just enhances more and more attention, and viewership ultimately. which is what I’m invested in. We are going to take a whack at it, but I am geniunely thrilled just to be at this point, ” she said.
The film (directed by Kennedy who co-produced with Keven McAlester who co-wrote the WGA nominated script with Kennedy’s husband Mark Bailey) merges remarkable never-before-discovered footage of the heart-rending and pulse pounding American exodus from Vietnam and is unlike any other film made on the subject. In fact Kennedy didn’t want to do it when first approached by PBS. She thought the subject had been exhausted but soon learned there was much more insight and human stories in this angle covering the final days than anyone thought possible . In fact seeing the film it is obvious this is also great fodder for a star-driven theatrical feature film as it is full of suspense and human tales of courage and heartbreak.”It definitely has those elements and there has been a good amount of interest in that,” she told me without naming names. “There is one project in which I would be involved but they haven’t officially announced it yet. So , I am not quite in a position to talk about it, but yes,” she hinted.
Being a Kennedy doing films of this sort would seem a natural . And of course her famous father, Robert Kennedy , and Uncle President John F. Kennedy (she calls him Jack) had direct links in different ways to the Vietnam War. “I was interested in this story, in part because of my family’s connection to Vietnam. I think I was more connected to my father… he really jumped into that final campaign in 1968 I think because he really wanted to get us out of Vietnam. And so from a very young age I was really aware of Vietnam,” she said adding that her Uncle Jack was there at the beginning but only had 16,000 non-military people there by the time he was assassinated in 1963 . “You know I think people associate him with the beginning of the war, but he really had a non-military engagement. And there are a lot of great historians who would argue that he was committed to getting us fully out of there, and saw that there was really no future. He committed to Vietnam so I think it’s a very different goal than (President Lyndon) Johnson played , or (President Richard) Nixon played, or other people who engaged in that war and sent troops over, sent people to die, which was not what Jack did,” she said in defending the Kennedy role in the war.
This movie eventually landed on my ten best list for 2014. And with good reason. But nevertheless I almost had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see it. Last Days In Vietnam , on the surface at least, is not the most compelling title if you don’t know what the film is really about. “I know,” says Kennedy. “That has been our challenge but I think if you can somehow get people to turn it on they are pretty much blown away by the story, not having known it at all. I think it has a good reputation. I am hopeful the Academy members will pursue our responsibilities, which is to watch these films, and vote for them. So I’m hopeful. I think the Academy skews older. And I think that audience is naturally interested, and invested, in Vietnam that no matter if you were over 55 years old, you were a participant in this war on some level, whether family members went there, or your parents were there, or you’ve protested it. It’s very hard to find people in that age range who aren’t deeply invested. And so I think for that group, I’m hopeful that they are interested enough that they’ll want to see it, ” she said.
Kennedy believes her film doesn’t just serve as a historical document on how we exited Vietnam. It certainly isn’t just that. It works as a crackerjack edge-of-your-seat thriller too. But she hopes in showing these extraordinary people who tried to do the right thing under incredibly difficult circumstances can make a difference in how we are dealing with similar situations today. “These were extraordinary people who did the right thing, the heroic thing, ” she said. “They did the best they could do, and they were the best they could be in that moment. And I think that’s an inspiring message, one we can apply to Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. These are horrible situations that we’re in, and it’s still about how can we be the best that we can be in these moments?”
During that women’s panel in Santa Barbara last week, Kennedy told the ironic story of how one of those young abandoned refugees, a South Vietnamese student named Binh Pho and the U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington, wracked with a lifetime of guilt for having to leave him behind , will now, almost exactly forty years later, find themselves once again linked by history when they both go to the Oscars together on February 22nd.