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The Trials of Henry Kissinger

The Trials of Henry Kissinger
First Run Features
2002 / B&W and Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 80 min. / Street Date August 19, 2003 / 29.95
Cinematography by Greg Andracke, Mark Benjamin, Gary Grieg, Christopher Li, Jeff Lion Weinstock, Brett Wiley
Film Editor Simon Barker
Original Music Peter Nashel
Written by Alex Gibney
Produced by Roy Ackerman, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Susan Motamed
Directed by
Eugene Jarecki

A necessarily political review by Glenn Erickson

The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a highly charged political docu using the same title and some of the same reasoning from Christopher Hitchens' accusatory book. It has focus, it's scrupulously annotated with actual transcripts and key-source interviews, and makes a strong case for indicting Henry Kissinger as a war criminal under the same statutes used to convict despots and mass murderers in other countries.

The docu has at its basis the idea that being American and powerful does not entitle one to play at war and overthrow governments overseas. Writer Alex Gibney makes a big issue of the fact that Americans are enthusiastic about the idea of world courts and world justice, but only if America and its leaders are exempt. This is the real conflict between the US and the UN.

Viewers with the firm belief that America is the exception because it is always right, or because it has a responsibility to defend the world's interests no matter what, should watch this show with open eyes. Unless one is an ideologue believing that self-interest justifies anything, this film is a key starting point to begin a questioning of American foreign policy.

The thesis 'indicts' Kissinger for using secrecy and lies to maintain his influence and power. Everything is spelled out, and proven through transcripts and testimony from people on his own State Department team.

In 1968, Kissinger purposely quashed a Johnson cease-fire agreement in Paris for the purpose of insuring Nixon's re-election, and to earn himself a high un-elected office. When the Vietnam War ended seven years later, the truce terms were almost identical, only tens of thousands more American had died, and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese and Cambodians. The destabilization of Cambodia led directly to the rise of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge and millions more dead. All because Nixon wanted to clinch the Presidency.

Kissinger promoted the idea of secretly invading and bombing Cambodia, helping Nixon expand the War into a neutral country and exceeding the authority of the Executive branch. Kissinger promoted mass bombings to make minor bargaining points, and to calm the nerves of America's puppet leader of South Vietnam.

With Vietnam lost, Kissinger and Gerald Ford covertly armed and encouraged Indonesia to overrun East Timor. The invasion became another mass slaughter of civilians. Kissinger is on film in repeated denial of any involvement, but the paper record shows him managing the affair from afar and trying to maintain secrecy.

Kissinger's most ugly maneuver was the direction of the attempted coups against Salvador Allende in Chile. Documents show him personally arranging a hit on a loyalist General and concealing US involvement, in the style of Al Capone. Once again, overthrowing an elected government is okay if it's in the interest of keeping another Marxist state out of the Western Hemisphere. The docu uses news film and more documents to show that Chile was overthrown so that Nixon would retain the money backing of big corporations like AT&T. To stay in office, Nixon and Kissinger sanctioned and supplied the Pinochet government, which murdered and tortured thousands.

Kissinger and Nixon went on to cement a three-way Cold-War stalemate that was actually a model of diplomacy, and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Critics of The Trials of Henry Kissinger can use the argument that fighting a cold war is messy, and we were lucky to have leaders that knew they had to use secrecy to get the job done, as 'the people' would never have understood. But the docu establishes that Nixon and Kissinger weren't idealistic statesmen, but power-hungry opportunists who broke laws and lived behind a curtain of lies. Henry was an 'advisor,' but instituted his policies as would an autocrat. Close associates of Kissinger tended to resign when he chose to handle State Department business alone and in secret. Close associates of Nixon tended to be scapegoated and sent to prison.

The show uses mocking material very sparingly, as when we see John Belushi imitate Kissinger on Saturday Night Live to illustrate the jarring fact that Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, and then continued keeping the war going for two more years. We mostly get prime interviews and filmed speeches. Kissinger condemns himself out of his own mouth time and again. Alexander Haig has a lot of screen time, and seems a not-very-bright ideologue. He calls author Hitchens a 'sucker of sewer pipes.' With nobody to put him on the spot, Christopher Hitchens comes across very smoothly - the show advocates his positions, after all. Verification of Hitchens' claims are nicely presented through interviews with people like Anna Chennault, a woman whose job it was to take the secret messages from Kissinger to the President of South Vietnam and so undermine the 1968 Vietnam peace effort in Paris.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger was made by sane hands, that wisely don't extend their documented lessons of into wholesale condemnation of America or its policies. It's not difficult to connect the dots, however. At one point Kissinger delivers a calm on-camera rationalization that national executives are above morality and the law. It's all we need to understand why America is running amok today, alienating her allies and creating new legions of enemies sworn to destroy us.

First Run Features' The Trials of Henry Kissinger is handsomely presented with anamorphic enhancement. There's some evidence of less-than-top notch encoding, but most of the images look very good. Many file photos, newsreels and found video footage of course have flaws. The sound is clear.

The extras include an audio commentary where the filmmakers appear both sane and responsible. There's an on-camera interview with the filmmakers as well, a piece on the film's reception at Sundance, and an original trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Trials of Henry Kissinger rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, Interview with filmmakers, Sundance reaction, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2003


The movie shows us Kissinger's controversial 1967 book about atomic weapons and foreign policy, where he advocated limited nuclear wars. But we aren't told if he was the direct model for either Kubrick's Dr. Stranglove, or Burdick and Wheeler's Dr. Groteschele of Fail-Safe.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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