Daniel Petrie’s resourceful direction and pacing of Lionel Chetwynd’s intense account of the Vietnam negotiations in 1972 and ’73 hand this drama urgency as Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, vie for personal glory. Beau Bridges’ own strong personality soaks through the overdone Nixon makeup, but Ron Silver’s Kissinger is indeed a study; here’s backstage at the palace.
The subject’s really the peripatetic Kissinger dealing with South Vietnam’s President Thieu (as played by Henry Chan, he might be considered the only good guy, if not a saint) in Saigon; with North Vietnam’s negotiator Le Duc Tho (superbly limned by George Takei); with Nixon’s pipeline (in this version) Alexander Haig (a meek, unsoldierly entry by Matt Frewer). And with Nixon himself.
In that nobody trusts anybody, the negotiations are fodder for intrigue and malice. In Chetwynd’s characterization, a suspicious, ambitious Kissinger doesn’t trust or like Nixon; duplicity is served up with the morning orange juice. Nixon, on the far other side, waves his hands and huskily downgrades everyone, including Kissinger. As for belittled Secretary of State William Rogers (Brett Halsey, bobbing briefly in and out), he’s little more than a nuisance.
The ship of state’s anchor is dragging, according to Chetwynd’s version of 1970s history. Dramatizing six months out of Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger bio, Chetwynd boils down the talks, trims the number of participants, deals in personality essences.
It’s an election year, and the Republicans are confident. Kissinger wants the war’s end before the election; Nixon sees himself winning anyway. Sneering at the “hippies and Jewish liberals,” he’s sure he has the vote of the American electorate because his actions are what the people want. The dissenters are of no consequence; he feels he’s at the top of his form. (A couple of unnecessary mentions of the oncoming Watergate ordeal are disconcerting.)
Telefilm airs a caveat noting that the vidpic, besides being based on the Isaacson book, stems also from “other, sometimes conflicting, sources. Some scenes and the dialogue have been created for dramatic purposes.” These reservations may lend the work dramatic unity, but they also give pause to the historic sense of what’s what.
Dr. Kissinger’s seen squiring an attractive dining companion and house-guesting among the high and mighty. But mostly he’s being sly or, with his staff, mercurial. When Haig expresses his friendship, Kissinger coldly asks him to shut the door as he leaves.
Kissinger’s talks with Tho and Thieu are provocative, if brief and simplistic. Petrie gives each of the interviews an air of dignity and respect that suggests everyone’s honorable; it’s not to be believed. Kissinger’s searching inroads into binding up Vietnam play more simply than was the case, but such is the necessary switch from fact to fiction. A faux pas over proposals submitted in English stands out as a fine example of nagging details that held back the eventual peace.
There’s no real time for or insight into Kissinger’s personal life — it’s hard to believe he has time for one — but there are the meetings with the New York Times’ Scotty Reston behind Nixon’s back to leak what Kissinger thinks is important. Other characters are shunted aside, and there’s a problem with secondary characters who, not fleshed out, act like spear carriers. Nixon, tapping other sources behind Kissinger’s back, all but rubs his hands in glee.
Chetwynd’s script, abetted by Stephen Lawrence’s editing, moves swiftly from demanding confrontation to angry denunciations as Kissinger tries settling international affairs in such a volatile atmosphere.
The riveting drama demands close attention, and for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Vietnamese-American chess playing, the telefilm poses a problem. Chetwynd and Petrie, developing the assignment, have successfully supplied drama and dark situations; illumination’s another thing.
But it’s hard to turn away — and hard to accept that these ostensibly honorable American leaders backbite, cheat and ridicule each other. If Nixon’s excesses aren’t altogether persuasive, it’s not just because Bridges is such a forceful individual even under the makeup job. Too many dramatic actors and nitery comics have already used up this surface Richard Nixon.
Rene Ohashi’s camerawork is shrewd. Karen Bromley’s thorough design for the production catches the ambience of the meeting places, and the Oval Office arrangement is familiar. Jonathan Goldsmith has supplied a helpful, unobtrusive score.