Many years ago, “Nightline” had a show where they simulated some potentially global catastrophe. (Nuclear war was potentially imminent or something like that.) A convocation of high government officials (real ones, though some semiretired) were assembled in a war room mock-up to show how this sort of thing would be handled. The first items on the agenda were: “What do we do?” and “What do we tell the American people?” with the tacit understanding that these were two separate questions. There was nothing conspiratorial here — this was on “Nightline,” after all — just a frank reminder that in times of conflict the truth is often finessed, if not flat-out suppressed. It’s something worth keeping in mind when watching Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki’s documentary on former Secretary of State and crisis groupie Henry Kissinger.
The film is based on, or more accurately spun from, a book by professional contrarian Christopher Hitchens, whose premise is that Kissinger is a war criminal and should be tried as such. It presents a somewhat more balanced overview than does Hitchens, though it’s still a clear indictment. Without a look at the inherent duplicity of government as suggested by the “Nightline” special, the effect is to make Kissinger seem like a pathological liar. But the revelation of this damning portrait is less his Machiavellian opportunism than his persistent and tragic ineptitude.
This is interesting, because the word used most often in the film is “brilliant,” and it’s used to describe Kissinger by both friend and foe alike. Kissinger’s brilliance is a given and has been for a long time, but there’s no evidence of it here, just as there’s been no evidence of it in the droning public pronouncements he’s been making for the past 35 years — though his realpolitik assessments can seem penetrating in the context of the standard political boilerplate. One has to assume that a demonstration of this brilliance is beyond the scope of the film, which is only 80 minutes long and has a tangled tale to tell, just as in real life it remains buried in the thickened arguments of his book-length foreign policy analyses. OK. But in the film, Kissinger comes across as someone who has screwed up time and time again on his own terms.
Exhibit A, of course, is Vietnam, where Kissinger was the brains behind both the bombing of the North and of Cambodia — the former done to enhance, if not stiffen South Vietnamese resolve, the latter to attack North Vietnam strongholds in that country. Neither worked as planned and, apart from all the unnecessary killing, the secret and undeclared (and, incidentally, illegal) war on Cambodia was devastating enough to create an environment that allowed the Khmer Rouge to gain ascendancy and conduct their ensuing holocaust. Following Kissinger’s misadventures, the film then moves on to Chile, and the political assassinations that led to the installation of the bloodthirsty but U.S.-friendly dictator Pinochet, and then on to the Indonesian slaughters in East Timor — both cases where Kissinger offers a defense which, if believed, again indicates ineptitude.
A hardcore polemical approach, as favored by Hitchens, would blame Kissinger for the Khmer Rouge (a stretch), the rise of Pinochet (he had a hand in it) and the East Timor massacre (pretty much guilty), but Gibney and Jarecki manage to suggest that the truth is more complicated, if not necessarily more favorable to their subject. It
doesn’t help Kissinger’s case that the few of his partisans present here seem either still buzzed by the mere contemplation of the great man’s power, or else, as in the case of Alexander Haig, hopelessly inane.
At one point Haig, former secretary of state and before that a Kissinger aide, moved to condemn Hitchens; he leans into the camera and lowers his voice as though he’s about to offer up a particularly unseemly profanity and says, “He’s a sewer-pipe sucker.” And then, with a politician’s sense of wanting to make himself perfectly clear, adds, “He sucks the sewer pipe.”
Less comical is a clip of Kissinger himself attacking Hitchens, calling him, among other things, a Holocaust denier, which is sheer fantasy and an act of desperation. Someone should advise the legendary adviser that he might be more convincing, at least in the so-called court of public opinion, if he acted a little less guilty.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].