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MOVIES Rory Kennedy re-creates 'Last Days in Vietnam'
by Sarah Toce
2014-10-12

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Rory Elizabeth Katherine Kennedy, 45, is the youngest of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy's 11 children. Born a mere three months following RFK's assassination in 1968, Rory's personal history has long been laden with the remnants of Vietnam ( her father was campaigning for president on the anti-war platform when he was killed ), and now she's taking her passion to the big screen with Last Days in Vietnam ( American Experience Films/PBS ).

Interestingly, Chicago enthralls Kennedy.

"I love Chicago. My mother hails from Chicago and my brother lives there," Kennedy said. "I feel strongly that this is a film that really does well in the theatrical setting, so I hope people will come see it."

Truth be told, most people will venture out to see the film regardless of whether or not they even care about Vietnam. With all due respect, she is—after all—a Kennedy. Keeping it in the family, Kennedy's husband, Mark Bailey, served as a writer on Last Days in Vietnam. The two had a tale to tell, and hoped others might listen.

"Vietnam has always been a fascination to me and I consider it to be a seminal event in our nation's history. I was interested in looking at the final days of the war, both because although I was familiar with the helicopter off of what I thought was the embassy, I realized I didn't have a handle on exactly what had happened," Kennedy said. "And then as I started doing more research, I found it to be such an extraordinary story, so dramatic, and the stakes were so high, and unpacking those events seems hugely important."

The lack of public knowledge surrounding what happened during the cessation of the war was alarming to Kennedy.

"In talking to other people, asking them about their knowledge and their awareness, I found that virtually nobody knew what happened," Kennedy remembered. "People who are very educated: baby boomers who were alive during that time, historians, politicians. As a country, I felt like we really didn't have a handle on those events, and yet they're so pertinent, they're so relevant, and so timely."

Timely is an understatement. Kennedy began to develop Last Days in Vietnam while America was on the brink of getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, as the film makes its way across the nation, the country is "entering into new engagements with ISIS and going back into Iraq," she said. "I think an understanding of what happens at the end of a war is also hugely relevant to this decision of going into a war."

As with anything, one must decipher the circumstances in one war as to not perpetuate the same outcome in another. Entanglement comes with its share of risk, but how much is too much, and what can we learn from wars past?

"Of course, there are significant differences [between each war]. They're not the same, but I think there are echoes of Vietnam in what's happening with Afghanistan and Iraq. I would say, from a very specific connection, I think one of the things that we might lose sight of a little bit is the human cost of war and what happens to the people on the ground, particularly when you don't win a war, and what our responsibilities are to those people," Kennedy shared. "At the end of the war you see these moments where we're trying to find the cooks and the translators and the secretaries to try to get them out, because we know that along with the special agents and the military personnel, they are also going to be vulnerable to, in this case, North Vietnam, but it is similar in Iraq for sure at this point, and I think might be in Afghanistan soon enough that these people are more vulnerable because of their association with the Americans during the time that we had a military presence in the country."

Kennedy's ruminations were tangible.

"What is our responsibility to those people? There are people right now who are trying to get out of Iraq and they are vulnerable because they can't get out, and our country is not being receptive and responsive," she said. "What is our responsibility, and how do you get out? How do you ever get out, and how do you leave those folks behind?"

In terms of ISIS, Kennedy said it's the start of the race that holds substantial power and authority.

"One of the lessons I learned from making Last Days in Vietnam is that by April 1975, when these events take place, there were very few good options still. I don't think there was really much to be done to stop the wave of history that was kind of marching along on its way at that point," she said. "The moment when you really have control is deciding to embark on these engagements in the first place."

Comparing ISIS to Vietnam is akin to dressing up an apple like a banana for Halloween. The costume selection simply doesn't fit.

"Listen, I think that they're different…we hadn't had 9/11, you hadn't had attacks on U.S. soil, you hadn't had the beheadings of Americans; Vietnam was a war that was thousands of miles away and that we thought had posed a threat, but I think most people would say that it didn't really pose such a threat in retrospect," she said. "I think Bush going into Iraq in the first place, that was a bad decision. And we're still dealing with the consequences of that decision."

Kennedy is requesting answers this time. "As we now embark on this engagement with ISIS, what is the exit strategy? What is the goal? What is the end game? What is the responsibility going to be to the people on the ground? What's going to happen to them? What's going to be the effect of their association with Americans? What is our responsibility? How do we get out of that? Does it escalate it more to get in it? Let's think and get answers to these questions [before going to war]."

How accountable do we hold our politicians and our president to the exit strategy?

"I have opinions, but I don't feel like I am an expert on these things," said Kennedy. "I feel, though, that we should have a level of conversation and engagement that addresses these questions. You know, I think that you have the abject horror of these beheadings, which, instinctually, I think everybody wants to do something. You want to do something, I mean it's wrong, it's not acceptable, we can't have a world like this, and then you hear the horrors about what ISIS is doing on the ground, and that's deeply, deeply unsettling and upsetting. You don't want them to grow and grow and grow. I'm not saying that we shouldn't do something at all, but I think that we need to understand what the implications are and what the end game is and what we're trying to do. Are we just trying to stop them in their tracks, and then that is going to take a matter of months and we're going to bomb them? Or is it something that is going to be an intractable long-term engagement that we are now embarking on and we need to be committed to as a country?"

In some ways, Kennedy's energy reflects that of a student trying to make the grade, but already knowing full well the answers to all of the questions on the final exam.

"I want to understand what the long-term implications are, and what kind of effect does that have on the ground? Is that further enticing people to join ISIS [because of our involvement]? Do we escalate, escalate, escalate? When I take on a project, I think through when it's going to finish, and how it is going to finish. How much is it going to cost? These are basic questions that we're asked to answer every day in our lives," Kennedy said. "When we have a war, I'm not saying you can answer and anticipate everything, but you can have a sense of what the goals are and what the expectations are, and you can have a military analysis of what that's going to look like."

Even as a filmmaker herself, Kennedy uncovered history she never knew existed before embarking on Last Days in Vietnam.

"I have shown this film to very, very educated people who were like, 'I didn't know any of this. This is unbelievable. I can't believe I didn't know this.' And I hate to make it be so broad, but I do feel on a basic, fundamental level that we don't know what happened at the end of the Vietnam War as a society, as a country. And that we should. And at the very least, we owe it to the Vietnamese people to understand what those last days were like, if not owe it to ourselves so that we can learn the lessons to not get into these situations again in the exact same way that we did then."

Kennedy's fascination with Vietnam led her to uncover a history barely told. A few moments stood out most for the history buff.

"There are these extraordinary stories that people really don't know of - Americans and South Vietnamese who risked their lives, arguably ( certainly their jobs ), and went against U.S. policy to save as many South Vietnamese people as possible in these very harrowing, dramatic moments that are largely documented on film but have never been seen before," Kennedy recalled. "Once I really got into those and uncovered some of these stories, then I was really sold in the idea of - this is a tale that's really never been shared in any national fashion. There are isolated books on particular stories that have a limited distribution, very few people have read, that might know a story here or a story there, but to put them all together and have the visuals and to be able to create a narrative that makes sense of these events really, in my mind, has never been done, ever."

Learn more about Last Days in Vietnam and find a screening near you by visiting lastdaysinvietnam.com . It will run at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., through Oct. 16.


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