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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Trials of Henry Kissinger
The Trials of Henry Kissinger
First Run Features // Unrated // August 19, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jason Janis | posted September 11, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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the Film:

"The average person thinks that morality can be applied as directly to the conduct of states as to human relations. That is not always the case. Sometimes statesmen have to choose among evils." - Dr. Henry A. Kissinger

In the lacerating documentary the Trials of Henry Kissinger, written by Alex Gibney and directed by Eugene Jarecki, the Nobel Laureate is seen uttering the above words toward the end of the brief, eighty-minute polemic. Both intellectually distanced and replete with the arrogance that only one in (or once in) a position of power would dare articulate so blandly, the filmmakers have found in this sentiment the perfect means by which to encapsulate their well-documented claims and plea: that the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford may indeed be a war criminal, and as such should be tried under international scrutiny. This restrictive, self-fulfilling realpolitik – though perhaps at times true – does not necessarily have to be an absolutist position, no matter how influential, historically effective or academically admired it has been. It does, however, adequately crystallize Kissinger's political cosmology and its practical application.

Based largely upon a series of two articles written by Christopher Hitchens for Harper's, and later published as a book with a similar title, Trials has rendered its judgment and presents its findings in an unabashedly accusatory manner. Buttressing its claims with declassified documents (or what was left of them after the markers) and many individuals associated with Kissinger during his tenure, the documentary also attempts to provide some greater perspective other than simplistic bashing. Trials' strong footing is somewhat diluted when it endeavors to paint an insightful portrait of the young man whose family fled from Germany during the Nazi's will to power and who, as a student, grew to admire Otto von Bismarck and the distillation of politics into pure power. Moreover, its inclusion of those more sympathetic to Kissinger, such as Alexander Haig (who claims Hitchens "sucks the sewer pipe") and William Safire, pales immeasurably in comparison to the likes of Seymour Hersh and Hitchens himself. That being said, when Trials concentrates on more pressing matters at hand – such as whether Kissinger and his direct (and directed) policies are worthy of inquiry – it disturbs and excels.

Bookended with the Allende / Pinochet matter, which simply sears with carefully guarded outrage, Trials spends considerable energy surveying Kissinger's role(s) in the Vietnam conflict. Specifically, it examines his maneuvering during the Paris peace talks under the Johnson administration (and Kissinger's own will to power, realized with Nixon and quite possibly at the expense of tens of thousands - if not hundreds - of lives) and the secret bombings of Cambodia. It also brings to light equally damning information regarding the alleged role the United States government played – with instrumental advisement (again, allegedly) by Kissinger – in Indonesia's unbridled pillaging of East Timor.

Throughout these passages, Trials burns brightly, positing some compelling theories as to the consequential effects of his actions: namely, the destruction in Cambodia that resulted in an exodus to the cities, which may have thereby set the stage a bit too neatly for the Khmer Rouge's brutal ascent; Pinochet's iron fist in Chile that ruled with ignominy for two decades and triumphed over Allende's democratically elected (and left leaning) government; finally, the frank irony of September 11. This date has added resonance since it also marked the beginning of Pinochet's ascent (in 1973) and was the very same day that Rene Schneider, Jr., the son of murdered Chilean General Rene Schneider who would not support the U.S. backed coup, filed suit against Kissinger for his purported role in the "attempted kidnapping." (Filmmaker Ken Loach explicitly draws the same parallel in his segment of the omnibus film 11'09"01 with much more damning vitriol.)

Trials also partakes in its fair share of thinly veiled (optimistically worded, to be sure) attacks against Kissinger's character, including excerpts from the Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. It also demonstrates his love and inspired use of celebrity during his heyday, which was marked by numerous public appearances and – according to the film – strategic "dating" with various Hollywood starlets. (The Robert Evans documentary the Kid Stays in the Picture also alludes to Kissinger's penchant for the public spotlight.) The inclusion of "Mr. Big Stuff" is amusingly used in this context and the sequence does (perhaps) offer some insight into the man, but it does not exactly help the overall tone of the film nor provide any valuable context to the horrendous methodologies being explored. For a deadly serious examination of United States foreign policy, under Kissinger's architecture specifically, it feels like an obligatory attempt to liven up the proceedings. Though understandable, it ultimately serves as one of the film's few missteps.

Lastly, the documentary's focus is extremely specific, which suits its purposes well and shades it with much greater context. Many of the issues being explored are much larger than any particular individual and can easily be extrapolated to countless others from the era – Robert S. McNamara, for example – and certainly Kissinger is not the only one worthy of further investigation and possible blame (Nixon is almost relegated to second banana status; Clifford and McNamara are not even mentioned in the Vietnam sequences). However, the film is not entitled the Trials of American Foreign Policy in Vietnam, etc., and the fixation upon Kissinger is, after all, inspired by Hitchens' blistering condemnation of the man and his political career. As such, complaints and protestations regarding "objectivity" or "balance" (quite the contentious term these days), are essentially rendered moot – as the filmmakers note in the supplemental materials provided in this release, they were not overly concerned with "balance" since Kissinger's public persona has been glaringly positive (and largely one-sided) over the years. Moreover, since their supporting evidence relies almost exclusively upon declassified documents, Kissinger's own words (spoken and written), and first hand anecdotal accounts, the film's theses cannot simply be dismissed outright as smear tactics by reasonable parties.

the DVD

Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Trials looks as good (and bad) as one might expect from a recently produced historical documentary that incorporates photographs, newsreels, and interview footage. Archival segments are frequently damaged, but the sequences shot for the film proper appear crisp and well defined. All in all, Trials is given a solid presentation.

Audio: Trials is given a DD 2.0 stereo mix that is serviceable throughout. Narration (by actor Brian Cox) is always easy to hear, and most of the archival elements sound clear as well. Given the overall scope of the film, subtitles in multiple languages would have been both appropriate and welcome, but are not included.

Extras: Included in this release is a feature length commentary track with writer Alex Gibney and director Eugene Jarecki. The track is generally informative on both historical and filmmaking fronts, and the two are frank in their discussions as to how they ultimately shaped the film. Jarecki notes that his family escaped the Nazis as well, and that growing up he viewed Kissinger as an "immigrant success story." Both comment further that the difficulties found in portraying the Holocaust and the use of background information not found in Hitchens' book. The difficulty in obtaining funding for the project in the United States is further discussed, as is their independent meeting while campaigning for funds from the BBC (the BBC ultimately funded the projected and suggested the two meet to ascertain if they could work together). Essentially, the commentary track further demonstrates the sense of responsibility, passion and care utilized in making the film;

Also included are brief interviews with Gibney and Jarecki (4:25), wherein they note how Hitchens' contemporary context for his arguments attracted them, as well as their hope for the film provoking and inspiring discussion; Sundance AFTEReffect (5:08), which includes comments from film critic John Anderson of Newsday and additional background from Jarecki and Gibney; a photo gallery consisting of thirteen shots of Kissinger with various politicos; related readings with links to declassified documentation and the Trials website; lastly, the film's original trailer, and trailers for four other titles.

Final Thoughts: Thankfully, quite a few "average" people remain that genuinely care about the sanctity of democratically elected governments, checks and balances, and personal accountability. The filmmakers – and Hitchens himself – are not naive, and they understand that the likelihood of Kissinger ever being fully called to task for his actions is perhaps unlikely. However, the Schneider suit has yet to reveal all of its implications (as is the case with the ongoing Pinochet matter), and the controversy surrounding President Bush's suggestion of Kissinger heading the investigation of 9/11 all point to an increasingly critical tenor that may suggest history's inevitable reevaluation process has already begun. At least by some.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a chess game is merely a chess game, but when gambits are made that have far reaching consequences – including the brokering of human lives – attention must be paid, scrutiny must be employed and comment must be registered. Moreover, the "American exceptionalism" discussed in Trials has an extremely familiar ring in these increasingly troubling times of international strife and brinkmanship. To these valuable ends, the Trials of Henry Kissinger acquits itself admirably. Powerful, compelling, and highly recommended viewing.

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