A New Doc Indemnifies One of America's Most Prominent Statesmen
Journalist Christopher Hitchens' 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger is as smartly written and exhaustively researched an indictment of the former U.S. national security advisor and secretary of State as one could possibly need. But BBC documentarians Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki's take on Hitchens' work is more viscerally effective, if only because it mates Hitchens' dry accusations to images of the incalculable human suffering Kissinger's policies wrought.
More than 20,000 American, 100,000 South Vietnamese, and nearly 500,000 North Vietnamese military died after Kissinger and President Nixon took over the Vietnam War in 1968. As many as 600,000 perished in Cambodia while Kissinger advised during our secret war against that country. The genocide in East Timor, instigated by Kissinger's policies, eventually caused the death of 200,000 noncombatants.
Both book and film go beyond a mere list of Kissinger's dubious achievements. They ask, if Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet can be tried for crimes against humanity, why not Kissinger? What follows is a flawed but sober indictment of U.S. unaccountability that, in its finest moments, both literally and figuratively gives voice to the casualties of Kissinger's lust for power.
Coolly narrated by Scottish thespian Brian Cox, shot and edited in crisp digital video, and clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes when another 40 would be welcome (and, in some cases, needed), the film lets the details damn its subject in place of obtrusive editorializing. Shots of recently declassified documents often do the "talking" and are intercut with grueling war footage of blasted and burned bodies--often children--and interviews with practiced Kissinger hunters such as journalist Seymour Hersh and legal scholar Michael Tigar. Even more illuminating are interviews with former Kissinger cronies such as Alexander Haig, who comes off as a cackling member of the ethically unencumbered living dead. (Notable Haig quote regarding Hitchens: "He sucks the sewer pipe.")
Along the way, Trials trails Kissinger from birth to his present status as a $25,000-a-pop guest speaker. The filmmakers present a psychological rationale for the suave, plug-shaped man's power mania. Born a Jew in Germany who fled the Fatherland in 1938, it's suggested that his power hunger was born of the helplessness of a smart, scared boy on the run. It's the film's flimsiest argument.
Once in the United States, Kissinger made a beeline from the U.S. military, to Harvard, to a first taste of political power assisting Nelson Rockefeller's failed presidential bid. Kissinger later became both secretary of State and chief of the National Security Council to presidents Nixon and Ford.
The film portrays the Kissinger/Nixon-brokered Vietnam peace process as a means to solidify the adviser's power base. Unhampered by ethical considerations or nitpicky constitutional issues, Kissinger opts to target villages and urban centers instead of military targets in the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Clandestine arms shipments and encouragement turn oil-rich East Timor into another killing field. It's also strongly suggested that, when IT&T and PepsiCo objected to Chile's democratic election of a leader intent on nationalizing that nation's resources, Kissinger played an active hand in the South American nation's violent regime change--including the murder of Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider. When told of Kissinger's denial of complicity in these actions, a military attaché involved in the incident says flatly, "He's a liar."
The picture that emerges is of a cold mystery of a man remotely juiced on his burgeoning rep and in perpetual emotional disconnect from the atrocities he orchestrated. At the peak of the Vietnam years, he finds time to not only hang out with Jill St. John and Frank Sinatra but to give an interview about his sex life, wherein he coyly admits to being "a secret swinger."
In fact, the film touches on the idea that Kissinger used his unlikely celebrity to gain even more power and validity in a country he saw, from his outsider's viewpoint, as accepting celebrity as the ultimate validation. Considering that President Reagan was waiting in the wings, and given our blind trust in the increasingly bellicose jingoistic bile most Hollywood movies spew, it would have been nice if Gibney and Jarecki had elaborated a bit more on this theme.
Ironically, Hitchens' on-screen appearances are Trials' biggest deficit. Clammy-looking, chain-smoking, and self-important, he comes off as the sort of smart-ass liberal that makes reactionary support for opposing positions understandable. Fortunately, Hitchens appears only sporadically, though he does fire off a few memorable bon mots; he notes that, with Kissinger, the phrase "mass murderer" isn't "a piece of rhetoric--it's a job description."
It would be comforting to think that Kissinger was an aberration, and the Nixon administration an ethically corrupt exception, but at a critical juncture in the film, a British commentator points out that "international law applies to everyone except Americans." Gibney and Jarecki, without straining the linkage, show that Kissinger was a pure distillation of an ongoing strain of U.S. politics defined by total power and cynical, cold-blooded expediency. As a wretched example of the perils of centralized power, his story is more timely than ever.