Review: ‘The Trials of Henry Kissinger’

Is Henry Kissinger, America's revered elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, a war criminal? That's the question posed by this startling BBC docu that starts with the accusations leveled by Christopher Hitchens in his recent book.

Is Henry Kissinger, America’s revered elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, a war criminal? That’s the question posed by this startling BBC docu that starts with the accusations leveled by Christopher Hitchens in his recent book. A chilling history lesson in realpolitik, docu examines Cambodia, Chile and Indonesia, where Kissinger may have “needlessly sacrificed human lives to achieve strategic goals” on a massive scale. What makes docu so timely is a worldwide movement to establish accountability through international law (Kissinger has been summoned in five different countries to answer questions on Chile), and Kissinger’s leaving a clear paper trail and a visibility usually reserved for reigning despots. Docu has aroused considerable interest since its BBC airing in March, and cable or public television exposure following limited theatrical runs in urban centers seems inevitable. If any of the legal proceedings currently under way should manage to capture the headlines, “Trials” could attract a major nationwide audience.

Docu calls on a plurality of voices and points of view to speak to the nature of the man. This does not necessarily lead to a “balanced” presentation: with friends as outspoken as Alexander Haig, who needs enemies? The opening biographical section also taps a steady stream of contemporaneous artifacts: the “Time” cover of Kissinger as a cartoon Superman, clips with coy sound bites to female reporters by the self-styled “swinging” diplomat, an unauthorized animated “cameo” on “The Simpsons,” and an ad that features Kissinger, all alone on the baseball diamond, hitting an inside-the-park home run.

This flood of found footage, not to mention the many excerpted Kissinger appearances on the nightly news, immerse the viewer in the public persona of a man who understood, as few had before him, the power of celebrity in 20th century America.

As the docu shifts to the political arena and the allegations against Kissinger, the nature of the imagery changes, charting the devastation wrought by the illegal bombing of Cambodia, by the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile and by the invasion and decimation of East Timor by Indonesia. Footage is used to link Kissinger through newly released records and testimony of colleagues and eye-witnesses to old horrors.

Film’s exploration of the possibility that Kissinger, by sabotaging the 1969 Paris Peace talks to further Richard Nixon’s candidacy and his own concomitant rise to power, bears responsibility for all the deaths in Vietnam from 1969 to 1975 remains in the arena of pure speculation and is in fact ancillary to allegations arising from his far more easily proven role in the bombing of Cambodia.

The strongest evidentiary case, buttressed by Clinton’s de-classification of key documents in the wake of the Pinochet trial in London, concerns Kissinger’s role in the assassination of Chilean general Rene Schneider in 1970. The democratic elections in Chile also furnish the docu’s most extraordinary Kissinger quote: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

Documentarians could go to school on pic’s clarity of exposition and plasticity of editing. Camera, sound and all tech credits are suitably no-nonsense, while music selections provide unexpected period coloration.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger


A Think Tank and Jigsaw production for the BBC in association with Diverse Limited. Produced in association with ARTE-Zeta Prods., History Television, SBS Television, Australia and TV 2 Denmark. Produced by Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki. Executive producer, Roy Ackerman. Co-producer, Susan Motamed. Directed by Eugene Jarecki. Written by Alex Gibney.


Camera (video), Christopher Li, Brett Wiley; editor, Simon Barker; music, Peter Nashel; associate producer, Jennie Amias. Reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival, New York, May 29, 2002. Running time: 80 MIN.


Christopher Hitchens, William Safire, Gen. Alexander Haig, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Seymour Hersch, Daniel Davidson, Roger Morris, William Shawcross, Walter Isaacson, Michael Tigar, Amy Goodman. Narrator: Brian Cox.
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