"My brother Chris says I make two kinds of films: depressing and really depressing. So, that may be my range," Rory Kennedy says, laughing a little bit. "I don't really see it that way. ... A lot of my films, and I would throw this one there, are about people overcoming great odds."
That sentiment comes through in the documentary filmmaker's canon. The youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., has trained the camera on subjects that certainly have depressing elements, but ultimately show underdogs hanging on. Her body of work includes movies about poverty in Appalachia ("American Hollow"), torture in a military prison ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"), breaking workplace barriers ("Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House") and her own mother's path after RFK's assassination ("Ethel").
Rory Kennedy's latest movie, "Last Days in Vietnam," fits nicely into the darkness/overcoming dichotomy. Chronicling the days in April 1975 as the North Vietnamese finally pushed the U.S. presence from Saigon, it doesn't sound like brother Chris is too far off. But the movie combines archival footage with contemporary interviews of U.S. and South Vietnamese personnel, composing a story of courage and grace under fire.
"To me, one of the lessons of this film is, once you get to the point where it's the last days, there are very few good options," she says. And yet, the ingenious ways in which U.S. personnel went against the odds, and sometimes direct orders, to ensure safe passage for U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens alike, shows the few good options available were put to maximum use.
"I was shocked with how much I didn't know," Kennedy says. "The good news and bad news is that I'm not alone."
Among the things one might learn is that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, then a Navy officer, led a mission to move South Vietnamese naval ships out of the Saigon River and ended up facilitating the evacuation of thousands of refugees. (The details of the mission reek of a covert operation that combines elements of "Apocalypse Now" and "Exodus.") Or that U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin frustrated the hell out of his charges by delaying evacuation planning but then quickly mobilized to turn the devolving embassy grounds into an impromptu pick-up spot that rescued thousands more. Or that Congress failed to grasp the enormity of the human rights situation and failed to help out because it was paralyzed by gridlock.
Wait. Never mind that last one.
"I love storytelling," Kennedy says, explaining why she picked documentaries to be medium to her muse. In "Last Days in Vietnam," Kennedy takes a set of information and facts, does some digging and weaves a story that sheds light amid the darkness. It's like cinematic proof of Bob Dylan's theorem in "Meet in the Morning."
"They say the darkest hour/is right before the dawn."