Bobby Kennedy never laid eyes on his last child, born six months after his assassination in 1968. But Rory Kennedy has kept her father’s progressive legacy alive by producing and directing documentaries (more than 35 in all) that deal with war, torture, immigration, gender politics and her own mother. Her latest goes to the dark heart of her father’s era.
Last Days in Vietnam, which was recently nominated for an Oscar, looks at the frenzied days and hours before America hastily exited South Vietnam in April 1975. It’s a film that draws from what Kennedy calls “the ether” of her childhood. “I’ve always been fascinated with Vietnam, probably because my father ran his last campaign because he wanted to get us out,” she says.
The film is a ticking time bomb of an account of what happens when war – any war – ends. Images of desperate Vietnamese scrambling over embassy walls and dangling from helicopters became icons of the American failure in Southeast Asia. Kennedy interviewed everyone from Henry Kissinger to a notorious CIA agent to several former South Vietnamese officers, and she pulled together previously undeveloped film and archival TV footage. Some of the images are astonishing – in one sequence, American sailors pitch helicopters overboard to make room for choppers bringing more evacuees.
Kennedy decided to make the film because she anticipated American soldiers would be leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and she wanted to focus on the human cost of after-war. “One of the lessons I learned is that when you engage in a war, you can lose control of the events, even if you have intention and strategy,” she says. “We need to be asking, ‘What is the endgame and strategy? What happens when we leave? What happens to the people who are left behind, our partners, colleagues and friends?’ ”
Kennedy has lived through her share of family tragedies – brother David died of a drug overdose, and she tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate another brother, Michael, after a fatal skiing accident. JFK Jr. was flying to her 1999 wedding when he crashed his plane into the Atlantic. Unlike siblings Joseph P. Kennedy II, who served in Congress, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was lieutenant governor of Maryland, Kennedy hasn’t run for office, but she won’t rule it out. “It’s hard to imagine me doing that,” she says. “But hopefully life is long. I really love making documentaries. I think that films can have a real impact.”