Followers of global politics will be surprised to learn that Bernard-Henri Levy is responsible for the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, but that’s the story Levy tells in “The Oath of Tobruk,” co-helmed with Marc Roussel. Levy is France’s media star philosopher, a peculiarly Gallic creation whose immaculate tailoring and savvy self-promotion make him the darling of celeb rags and higher institutions. With “Tobruk,” he’s finally been subsumed by his own ego, placing himself front and center of Libya’s revolution and barely acknowledging other forces. Such self-aggrandizement will play to only acolytes at home.
Though the Weinsteins picked up the docu pre-Cannes, it’s unlikely even PBS will run such a baldly skewed piece of reportage; perhaps Levy has other projects whose potential makes “Tobruk” seem like a prudent acquisition. It’s certainly not the best vehicle to introduce BHL (as he’s known at home) to Stateside auds, since his nonstop theatricalized narration, interminable use of the first person, and treatment of the Libyan desert as little more than a GQ fashion shoot with himself as model don’t make for a sympathetic portrait. Nor together do they say much about the real nature of Gaddafi’s defeat.
BHL entered Libya in March 2011 together with sidekick Gilles Hertzog (Ed McMahon to Levy’s Johnny Carson). His appearance was informed by 20 years of guilt, when his cry for intervention in Bosnia (the subject of his 1994 docu “Bosna”) went largely unheeded. Convinced that the West must intervene in Libya, he crisscrossed the globe, using his access to the halls of power to spur leaders into military action.
According to “Tobruk,” that’s pretty much all it took. Interviews with Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and others are edited to reflect BHL’s importance and glory, while scenes of adulatory crowds cheering him in Benghazi testify to his skills in selling himself as the embodiment of First World action. The chaotic nature of the opposition is nowhere seen, and there’s little sense of what was happening on the battlefields.
In New York, Levy ruminates on parallels between his mission and that of Andre Malraux during the Spanish Civil War, when the French intellectual championed the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A more accurate comparison is with Gabriele D’Annunzio, the famously bellicose and spectacularly self-absorbed Italian writer who similarly dispensed advice on military strategy.
Viewers can agree with BHL’s belief in the necessity for Western intervention while questioning the centrality of his role in the enterprise’s apparent success. His stumping session in Israel, in particular, shows an astonishing lack of understanding of the geo-Arab situation, and there’s an unpleasant triumphalism in the way he swipes at Francois Mitterand while boasting of his friendship with Sarkozy.
Through it all, whether in a private jet or the bombed-out streets of Misrata, Levy sports his signature black suit and perfectly pressed white shirts (on especially hot days he compromises with a long-sleeved white t-shirt under the jacket; the bulge of a bullet-proof vest is occasionally visible). The incongruity of his clothing makes him appear a clueless monarch among his unfortunate subjects, and “Tobruk” plays like an illustration of the old joke, “Enough about me. What do you think of my hair?”
Disturbing amateur footage, including shots of Gaddafi’s battered corpse, provide the only sources of genuine potency. Music, taken from the most dramatic portions of Bruckner, Mahler and others, fits with Levy’s amour-propre.