The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rory Kennedy reveals heroic acts with ‘Last Days in Vietnam’

“Last Days in Vietnam” goes beyond this iconic 1975 photo of the fall of Saigon. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP)
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Rory Kennedy had one major problem when it came to her new documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam”: Everyone already thinks they know the story.

“There are so many movies about [Vietnam],” she says. “But I think a lot of the information we’ve gotten is cultural, through filmmakers like Oliver Stone. I think for people who lived through it, by the end of the war everyone was done with it.”

But now we’re nearly 40 years removed from the events the movie covers: those final days in the South Vietnamese capital, when North Vietnamese soldiers were storming the country, America was pulling out entirely and thousands of South Vietnamese people — especially those who had helped the U.S. — were desperate to follow. “Last Days in Vietnam” profiles U.S. soldiers who tried, occasionally against direct orders, to help the South Vietnamese.

Some of those soldiers were reluctant to tell the stories they’d kept secret for decades.

“I got the sense that they didn’t really want to revisit it,” says Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. “For many of them it was such a painful moment, and even the people who were real heroes, who did the right thing, they’re so tortured by the people they didn’t save that it overrides the courage and heroism.”

One example of that courage, seen in archival footage, is when the crew of an airliner pulls people through the open door — as the plane is taking off. Another is when sailors start shoving helicopters off an aircraft carrier to make room for more people. And another is when the USS Kirk escorts dozens of boats, many of them severely disabled, to the Philippines. When the Philippines refuses to take the refugees because their ships are flying South Vietnamese flags, the Navy conducts a ceremony to lower the flags and raise the Stars and Stripes, guaranteeing entry into the country.

While these are all matters of public record, the only thing most people know about the fall of Saigon is the iconic photo of people climbing from a rooftop up to a helicopter.

“I think the reason why people don’t know what happened was this was such a dark moment,” Kennedy says. “There was no opportunity for heroes in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam. Here we are, 40 years later, finally finding some heroes.”

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