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TRIALS OF HENRY KISSINGER, THE(director/producer: Eugene Jarecki; screenwriters: Alex Gibney/based on a book by Christopher Hitchins; cinematographers: Greg Andracke/Mark Benjamin/Gary Grieg/Christopher Li/Jeff Lion Weinstock/Brett Wiley; editor: Simon Barker; music: Peter Nashel; cast: Brian Cox (Narrator), Christopher Hitchins, Anna Chennault, Alexander Haig, Seymour Hersh, Barbara Howar, Henry Kissinger, William Safire, René Schneider Jr., Lewis Lapham; Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alex Gibney/Roy Ackerman; First Run Features; 2002-UK/USA)
“It’s both a necessary political work and a fascinating documentary about an ambitious man with a brilliant mind who has a dark side that overshadows everything else about him.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Trials of Henry Kissinger” is narrated by actor Brian Cox. To its credit, it’s a clinical and uncinematic BBC documentary, one that in its serious posture as an exposé reminds me of something that would be presented on PBS’s Frontline. Though it comes up with nothing new and its reporting is biased, nevertheless even when it overstates its case the facts it provides are verifiable because they are part of the public record. It aims to air out all the facts it can, even going beyond the 2001 book that inspired the film. The “Trials of Henry Kissinger” first appeared as an article in Harper’s Magazine by controversial leftist British journalist Christopher Hitchens (the frequent guest of cable TV talk shows has recently joined the right in promoting Bush’s Iraq war). The windbag author, someone I’m not partial to, brings his own baggage to the table, such as his personal animosity toward his subject which makes him hardly an impartial searcher for the truth. But the young director Eugene Jarecki, who was not an adult at the time covered by the film from the late 60s until the late 70s, and his writer Alex Gibney, make up for that by doing some additional research. They do themselves proud by bringing out Kissinger’s underhanded dealings in public. The film also includes archival photographs and footage from newsreels of the Nixon years and uses the interview format to probe some knowledgeable talking heads. It avoids making the film into a prosecutor’s case as the book does by charging Kissinger as a “war criminal.” The film never persuaded me in a conventional sense that it had much of a case to go down that road (it makes no distinction between domestic criminal law and international law). But in its more honest aims, it succeeded in showing how undemocratic our foreign policies can be if the public is kept uninformed. It also makes the case that Kissinger was a ruthless man with no scruples, whose questionable brand of political strategy resulted in immense American blunders. In otherwords, a monster– yes, a war criminal– no.

More than being judged as cinematic, Jarecki’s film has to be judged on a different set of criteria. It’s both a necessary political work and a fascinating documentary about an ambitious man with a brilliant mind who has a dark side that overshadows everything else about him.

The Kissinger tale includes how his psyche is broken down. But this is done in a facile manner showing him to have a contrasting inflated ego and a nagging insecurity problem. Perhaps, it’s a psyche that has been scarred by his birth in Germany to a Jewish family who fled to America when he was a child because of the Nazis and that in his childhood even though he was the smartest kid in school he was still persecuted for being a Jew. As for providing a satisfactory psychological profile of the man known for his insatiable appetite for both celebrity and power, the film is sketchy and underdeveloped.

As for Kissinger’s out-of-character “swinger” personality for a typical conservative politician, the sound bite against him that is the most revealing is his often quoted statement: “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” That probably best sums up what Kissinger always strove for as his thing was not to pursue some of Hollywood’s sexiest starlets for sexual pleasure, but to be seen in public with them and be talked about in order to use that swinger’s image as a ruse for him to do his Machiavellian political thing.

Kissinger was a brilliant student of history at Harvard. Later on his stature in academia and through his involvement with Nelson Rockefeller and his run for president, led him to switch from academia to politics where his ambitions steadily grew.

Kissinger is out of public office since 1978 but has remained a celebrity figure and is perceived as a master diplomat, a reputation he cultivates through self-promotion. His autobiography has made him a best-selling author (though he won’t reveal classified information to rebut the charges presented in the film until 5 years after his death, as he donated his works to the Library of Congress with that stipulation). He also now runs a private consulting firm for businessmen which makes use of the contacts he made through his powerful jobs as the former secretary of state and national security advisor and his reputation as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The film shows him to be a power-hungry warmonger responsible for prolonging the Vietnam War in 1969. In the 1970s he was involved in military cover-ups in Cambodia and in East Timor, as well as being responsible for the assassination of the elected Communist Chilean leader Allende in 1970 and helping to place in power the ruthless military dictator Pinochet.

The film rightfully asks where the American journalists were for the last 40 years in covering these serious allegations against Kissinger. Hitchens and members of the Human Rights Watch want him to face an international war tribunal as a war criminal, like the one where the accused Serbian mass murderer, Milosevic, is now on trial. Kissinger’s critics make a very good case against him as a liar and violator of human rights, and as a party to the unnecessary casualty list in the Vietnam War. Sadly, most of the war dead came after 1969. His self-serving actions as a peace delegate in the secret Paris peace talks between members of the Johnson administration and a North Vietnamese delegation helped scuttle a peace deal almost reached before the 1968 election, as Kissinger in order to gain favor with presidential candidate Nixon tipped him off and then helped Nixon abort the peace treaty with the North Vietnamese. That was pretty much the same treaty as the one signed in 1973.

In fairness, Kissinger has his defenders and they were not given much of chance to state their case. I would caution taking everything said here on face value. In politics everyone lies seems to be the best way to view things sanely. Though, the glaring lies Kissinger is accused of are deadly. The one thing that catches my immediate attention is that he boldly lied to Congress about the war in Cambodia. For the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, Kissinger’s dealings in overthrowing an elected government in Chile is his most overt criminal act and one he has no defense for.

Regime change as a war policy, is certainly on the minds of Americans on the eve of a possible war with Iraq. Whether that’s a good reason for war or not is debatable, but what’s not debatable was how the Nixon administration supposedly conducted so many illegal activities around the world and was only dumped because of a botched burglary at home. The only Nixon cabinet member to not be prosecuted for some crime was the elusive Kissinger, and that’s something at this late date that would probably not serve the public best–despite what the implacable Hitchens and the left wing Kissinger-bashers might say.

America and Kissinger have walked down the same ‘foreign affairs policy’ path for too long and that relationship should be reexamined with this information about his misdeeds now publicized. To understand what the rest of the world thinks, I think British Human Rights Watch representative Geoffrey Robinson makes that clear in his wry comment: “international law applies to everyone except Americans.”

This is a solid political/historical documentary, and should give any reasonable person some pause before Congress gives any president a blank check to carry out a war. In that sense, the film is invaluable, timely and right on the money. It is also at its best when it traces Kissinger’s opportunistic climb up the ladder and his development from an advocate in the 1950s of limited nuclear war to the know-it-all cynical designer of détente and the master manipulator of the press and the public. It’s at its worst when it asks self-serving questions about Kissinger and only pursues the responses it wants to hear.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”