First Run Features // 2002 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 13th, 2004
"There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full." -- Henry Kissinger
Intelligent and charming diplomat, or monstrous opportunist who treated human beings like chess pieces? Celebrity strategist, or the model for the mad Dr. Strangelove? A century ago, Henry Kissinger would have been hailed as a triumphant diplomat on a par with Bismarck. In the years after Vietnam, we have become more suspicious, more likely to hold our statesmen accountable for their backroom dealings.
When I was young, I was unsure even then what to make of Henry Kissinger, as ubiquitous as he became in the years of the Vietnam War and Watergate. On the one hand, he was a sort of role model for kids like me: a Jewish intellectual who succeeded in an aggressively Protestant (and under Nixon, barely veiled anti-Semitic) government power structure. On the other hand, he was a little creepy: an über-pragmatist who covered for an administration whose duplicity has become legendary.
Based on the muckraking journalism of Christopher Hitchens, The Trials of Henry Kissinger makes a three-pronged attack against the most powerful and influential American diplomat of our time. Focusing primarily on Kissinger's part in the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the waning of the Vietnam War, the brutal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, and (in the best documented case) the campaign to topple the legitimate government of Chile to put the tyrant Augusto Pinochet in power and coddle American business interests.
On their commentary track and in interviews included on the DVD, filmmakers Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki admit that their film is not objective, arguing that Kissinger has had plenty of positive spin already. But they are also at pains to distance themselves a bit from Hitchens's "vocal and shameless" personal crusade against the man Hitchens labels a war criminal.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger does get a little cheap when it succumbs to the urge to mock Kissinger's goofy "swinger" persona. Indeed, Kissinger was an unlikely sex symbol for the '70s, proof that the allure of power was almost overwhelming. But most of the time, the film (narrated by Brian Cox) tries to cultivate the air of a PBS or BBC documentary. At its best, the film makes you want to learn more about Kissinger and his times. What sort of man could become enough of a celebrity to win a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Vietnam War -- two years before it actually ended? What sort of man could be so well liked and respected, while lying boldly about the bombing of Cambodia and other blatantly illegal acts?
In some ways, Kissinger is merely a product of his time, a Cold War strategist who rose to the task, however distasteful it was. And he fit perfectly in the ruthless climate of Nixon's America. Perhaps if Henry Kissinger had not been born, we would have had to create him.
But is this enough to charge Kissinger as a war criminal? At its worst, The Trials of Henry Kissinger slips from apparent objectivity into hysterical protest. Yes, Kissinger is clearly a liar, an opportunist, and a crucial player in some of the most dangerous political maneuvering of our time. The film documents all this quite well. But is he the man to single out as solely responsible for the messes created by so many? "Sometimes statesmen have to choose between evils," Kissinger admits, as a sort of justification for his actions. Others, like Alexander Haig, are eager to defend him. But the evidence speaks for itself.
If you want to know more about how Cold War realpolitik led us to the more manipulative and sinister aspects of U.S. foreign policy, if you want to know more about the man George W. Bush assigned to investigate the 9/11 attack (and who subsequently withdrew after the public outcry fueled by this film), then you need to see this film. Even if it is only half-right, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a terrifying portrait of what will hopefully be the last great Machiavellian of our time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Documentarians Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki
* Interview with the Filmmakers
* Sundance Channel Featurette
* Photo Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer