Christopher Hitchens has never been one to hold his moral outrage in check, especially when he has the opportunity to unleash it against those who’ve been put on pedestals; and so it hardly comes as a surprise that this bare-bones documentary, based on his magazine articles and the book that flowed from them, pulls no punches in accusing Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and now elder statesman, of war crimes for his activities–often secretive and manipulative–while in office. Using talking-head interviews with Hitchens and others (though not Kissinger himself) and extensive newsreel footage, the film lays out, in abbreviated form, the case against Dr. K for his duplicity in dealing with the Vietnam War (once playing both sides of the fence to obstruct a peace deal by the Johnson administration in order to help the Nixon campaign in 1968), his direct involvement in the plot to overthrow Chilean Marxist President Salvatore Allende (a venture that included the assassination of the country’s military chief Rene Schneider), and his apparent decision to give Indonesia’s President Suharto a green light to invade East Timor–an assault that led to incredible brutality and oppression only recently lifted. The brief against Kissinger is effectively mounted, though one suspects that more evidence could be presented and hopes that much of what is, especially regarding Vietnam and Chile, will already be well-known to viewers (the information on East Timor, on the other hand, has been less circulated and so is more valuable); and while supporters of Kissinger like Alexander Haig and Brent Scowcroft are allowed to offer short statements for the defense, they’re hardly granted equal time. (Not that it would have made much difference, given what they have to say; the degree of moral relativism coloring their comments hardly jibes with the ordinary Republican insistence on what William Bennett, who’s claimed a position as our national conscience, refers to as “moral clarity.”) Clearly “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” isn’t designed to be objective; it’s a muckraking job, the cinematic equivalent of a legal indictment, and a fairly effective one at that; as such it will prove convincing to those already suspicious of the man and seem horrendously unfair to those who respect him.
On a far less important level, the film also shows how Kissinger, whatever one might think of the propriety of his vision or his methods, was personally seduced by the trappings of power and celebrity. He certainly wasn’t one to hide his light under a bushel, and as old footage makes clear, he reveled in being romantically linked in the media with Hollywood starlets, a frog- beside-the-princess pairing that he could never have achieved without the abundant press coverage of his diplomatic “triumphs” that he cultivated. In touching on Kissinger’s obsessive secretiveness and willingness to use such intrusive methods as wiretapping and bugging to find the source of leaks to the media, moreover, it raises issues that are now more relevant than ever regarding the scope of government power in the post-9/11 world and the era of John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice.
While the focus is on Kissinger, moreover, the film effectively raises the larger issue of the propensity of the United States to demand that other nations and their leaders be liable to world judgment for their actions but that American policies and politicians should be immune from such international scrutiny. “The arrogance of power,” as the phrase goes, is a subject as relevant to contemporary events as it was in the early 1970s.
“The Trials of Henry Kissinger” will undoubtedly speak most powerfully to the already converted, and even many of them will be uncomfortable in the charge being led by so smugly self-righteous, and frankly unpleasant, a figure as Hitchens. But its concerns are real, and they’ve been made even more pressing now that Kissinger has been appointed to head the committee investigating what the US government might have known or done prior to the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington last year. If many have come to doubt that Earl Warren was the proper individual to have led the inquiry into the Kennedy assassination, it’s obvious that any findings issued by a commission headed by Kissinger–a man noted for keeping secrets in the name of security and burying potentially embarrassing material to protect reputations–will be under a cloud of suspicion as soon as they appear. If this film reminds people of that, and helps to encourage reconsideration of his suitability for so sensitive a post, it may have done the nation a real service.