Some filmmakers use documentaries to explore complex subjects. Others use docs to ram home their own agendas. That's certainly the case with The Trials Of Henry Kissinger, a fast-paced, 80-minute exposé that is more an accusation than an examination. Directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, Kissinger lays out a vigorous condemnation of Kissinger's intimate involvement with everything from the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War to the Indonesian genocidal suppression of a rebellion in East Timor to the murder of a Chilean general just before the CIA-led coup against President Salvador Allende. Jarecki and Gibney make the case that, if Kissinger were held to the legal standards of the Nuremberg trials and the recent Hague proceedings against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, he would certainly be liable for international war crimes.
The film takes in Kissinger's meteoric rise to political power, first as an advisor to liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller, then as Richard Nixon's national security advisor. Kissinger was a Jewish refugee from the Nazi regime who longed to rise above his modest New York upbringing and courted a dazzling, celebrity lifestyle in later years. His love of the limelight and his endless self-marketing is presented in a sardonic, humorous style. But the film's chief focus, Kissinger's direct responsibility for a series of nefarious American international entanglements, is hammered home with intensity.
Kissinger's 1970 plan to bomb and invade areas of Cambodia under North Vietnamese control is presented as directly violating international law and the American Constitution. The film also connects Kissinger with gross human rights violations when the Indonesian army brutally suppressed the East Timorese rebellion, using U.S. weapons that Kissinger specifically allowed for that purpose.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger
The Cosford Cinema, Memorial Bldg, University of Miami, Coral Gables
February 14 through 23; 305-284-4861.
All of this clips along at a rapid pace, which may tend to boggle those who are not already familiar with the geopolitical history of the 1970s. And while the filmmakers manage to raise serious questions about Kissinger's involvement in Cambodia and East Timor, they don't manage to drive home their argument in a convincing manner. But once the film zeroes in on Chile, the case against Kissinger begins to gain increasing credence.
In 1970 the Nixon administration was extremely worried about the rise of Salvador Allende, a Marxist candidate for the Chilean presidency. According to the film, this had more to do with domestic politics than a fear of communist takeover. Allende proposed to nationalize Chile's vast copper industry, which at the time was largely cornered by American corporation IT&T, a major Nixon backer. According to the film, which cites recently declassified government documents, the CIA did not see Allende's election as a serious threat to the U.S. But IT&T saw a threat to its own interests.
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The Americans approached the chief of the Chilean army, Gen. René Schneider, expecting he would back a coup against Allende. But Schneider refused, opting instead to back the Chilean constitution and support whoever was to be elected by democratic vote. The film then charges that Kissinger directly led a plan to kidnap Schneider to take him out of the way. In fact Schneider was not kidnapped but gunned down by U.S.-paid assassins, who attacked his car on his way to work.
In 1973 hearings, Kissinger claimed that his office's involvement with the plan, called Operation Condor, was terminated a week before the murder. But the then-U.S. ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry (who died two weeks ago), and the U.S. military attaché who set up the hit and delivered the payment to the gunmen, appear onscreen to call Kissinger a liar. It's at this point that The Trials of Henry Kissinger gains some power and credibility. Is Henry Kissinger, the Nobel Prize-winning elder statesman, really guilty of plotting a murder? A French judge thinks so. He served Kissinger with an indictment when Kissinger was visiting France. The family of René Schneider certainly thinks so, and filed a lawsuit against Kissinger in an American court, an event that was completely obscured by its timing -- September 11, 2001.
This is serious stuff, but the filmmakers, in their zeal to make these charges stick, undercut their purpose in almost every way possible. Their approach is similar to that of New Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens, whose Harper's magazine article and subsequent book attacking Kissinger are the basis for this film. Hitchens is a relentless accuser of Kissinger, who he labels a flat-out war criminal. The filmmakers follow a similar slash-and-burn approach, preferring to tar Kissinger with innuendo before they finally get to the facts. Their depiction of Kissinger's vanity, his duplicity, and craving for power are largely irrelevant, mere character assassination. While Kissinger's accusers -- Hitchens, journalist Seymour Hersh, and others -- are given ample screen time, Kissinger's supporters are scarce indeed, save for the self-serving Alexander Haig, Kissinger's former aide during the early Seventies whose blustering defense of Kissinger is a self-parody. It's bitterly funny to see Haig make an ass of himself. But setting up the opposition spokesman as a buffoon is a cheap trick that merely undercuts the film's point -- which, despite the propagandistic approach, certainly has merit. The film's use of pop music ("Mr. Big Stuff" and other Seventies tunes) is silly and the repeated use of salsa and merengue music every time a Chilean scene appears merely underscores the film's irresponsibility.
As world opinion moves more toward international courts of law, many other world leaders may face possible legal struggles, as more and more classified documents are brought to light. In fact it was the Spanish courts' charges against Chilean coup leader Augusto Pinochet, General Schneider's successor, that led to much of the evidence against Kissinger. These filmmakers ask that the charges against Kissinger be taken seriously, yet their presentation of these charges merely trivializes them. But Kissinger's battles with his accusers are far from over.