Film Review: ‘Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction’

Director Joe Berlinger may have miscalculated the significance of epic flop 'The Promise,' but his behind-the-scenes doc offers insight and context to the atrocities it depicts.

Perhaps the surest proof of Winston Churchill’s theorem that “history is written by the victors” comes from none other than Adolf Hitler: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” the German Fuhrer said by way of a chilling corollary, effectively paving the way for the most insidious ethnic cleansing of the modern era. Between 1915 and 1918, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey had been rounded up and either marched to their deaths or murdered outright.

But “history” — as in the public study of past events, and the way they are positioned and discussed by society at large — has been ambiguous about the Armenian Genocide. Even that label is a point of contention among contemporary Turks, who resist the “G word” (coined in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe Germany’s systematic murder of Jewish citizens) as a legal definition that, they say, should not retroactively apply to conflicts in their own past — conflicts which time has given those now in power plenty of time to obscure, re-write or otherwise justify.

A century later, as the sons and daughters of Armenian descent (“orphans” might be more accurate) still struggle to reclaim the narrative of what happened to them as a people, filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial & Depiction” delivers a lucid, elegant (insofar as that is possible) and reasonably level-headed analysis of the issues that have clouded conversation around the Armenian Genocide. But this is no turgid, black-and-white PBS special (a format that serves its purpose with docs like Andrew Goldberg’s 2006 “The Armenian Genocide”), nor is it a sobering collection of talking-head witnesses (à la Claude Lanzmann’s incomparable Holocaust survivor project, “Shoah”). Rather, Berlinger — who co-directed the terrific “Paradise Lost” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” docs — focuses less on historical particulars than the subsequent tug-of-war to define the genocide, especially as regards Hollywood’s role in such representation.

Several years ago, Berlinger was approached by a wealthy Armenian producer about making a straightforward nonfiction film about the genocide, which he declined. But a few months later, after getting wind that a massive, Kirk Kerkorian-backed feature film called “The Promise” was underway, a light went off: Berlinger pitched the idea of “embedding” himself with the production — a first-of-its-kind, blockbuster-scale independent film about the Armenian Genocide, conceived as “Doctor Zhivago” set against the horrific backdrop of Turkish atrocity.

Except “The Promise” never lived up to its promise. While well cast (with the likes of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale) and respectably overseen by “Hotel Rwanda” helmer Terry George, the film muddies its history with melodrama, earning back just $8.2 million of its estimated $90 million budget. That meant Berlinger’s film — which plays like a glossy DVD extra at times — had a problem. As a broader look at the Armenian Genocide, it has the classiest recreation footage imaginable (clips from “The Promise,” paired with voiceover from a pre-production table read); but as a vérité record of a landmark film production … well, “The Promise” was a bust. And bizarrely enough, Berlinger ignores most of what might be interesting.

Why did George, Isaac and Bale agree to make the film? Were they personally invested in the subject, or was this just an opportunistic paycheck for them? And considering the enormous pushback anything that remotely touches on the Armenian Genocide receives from all fronts, where is the Turkish pushback on “The Promise”? (I speak from experience, since no subject generates more hate mail and threats — a lesson I learned when reviewing the documentary “Screamers” about Armenian band System of a Down during my first days at Variety.

In addition to reminding that the plight of persecuted Armenians was one of America’s top causes in the first quarter of the 20th century, Berlinger reveals through telegrams and evidence how Robert P. Skinner, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, succeeded in pressuring MGM (via the State Department) into scrapping an adaptation of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” in 1935 (the same battle inspired the climax of “The Promise”). But the closest anyone in “Intent to Destroy” comes to suggesting similar obstacles is when a crew member claims that no one even considered shooting the film in Turkey — whereas revisionist counter-salvo “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” starring Josh Hartnett (a 2017 release never mentioned here), took full advantage of Turkish locations.

Still, there are hints of conflict (check the IMDb page for “The Promise,” and you can see how an organized group of Turks has succeeded in sabotaging the movie’s user score), reflected in a paranoid on-set interview with actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, who reveals how the Turkish ambassador supplied him with a book called “Turks and Armenians” by controversial historian — and vocal genocide refuter — Justin McCarthy, whom Berlinger invites to share his position in the film. However “balanced” that decision may seem, the trouble with giving airtime to denialists is that it introduces doubt into the discussion of world events, suggesting that there can be “two sides” to any issue — which in this case, typically comes with a “they started it”-style justification, in which Armenian Christians are accused of conspiring with Russians and acting like terrorists against Turkish Muslims, effectively necessitating their own exile and extermination. (Trust me, the Turkish “side” is adequately represented elsewhere, taught as history and publicly reinforced by the country’s political advantage on the world stage, strong-arming even U.S. presidents and ambassadors into submission — including former diplomat John Marshall Evans, who was reprimanded and forced to make a public retraction after publicly using the word “genocide,” but allowed to speak his mind freely here.)

Whereas the documentary material related to “The Promise” looks good, but adds little (apart from a congratulatory behind-the-scenes souvenir for all involved in the production), interviews with director Atom Egoyan paint a different picture about the making of his 2002 film “Ararat.” In the film’s most eloquent interview, Egoyan candidly explains how Turkish activists attempted to intimidate him into abandoning the project. Like “The Promise,” “Ararat” also would have been more powerful if only it were a better film, although it shares Berlinger’s interest in the challenges, borth artistic and political, in depicting such an event.