At first blush, the documentaries PBS is airing Nov. 18, American Experience’s “Cold War Roadshow” and Frontline’s “Firestone and the Warlord,” feel like historical artifacts. Look closer, though, and both contain significant present-day resonance: the first owing to the fraying state of U.S.-Russian relations; the second in the Ebola scare emanating from Liberia — a country in which America and, in particular, one very large tire company harbor dubious ties to its lingering political dysfunction. While each program has merit, the former is more noteworthy, largely because it’s hard to imagine a modern parallel to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s barnstorming tour.
The day-by-day account of Khrushchev’s 1959 trip to America provides not only a fascinating look at the Cold War, but also at the early days of television (the networks devoted a half-hour nightly recap to the Soviet premier’s activities) and, by extension, at the boisterous personality of the Soviet leader, who mixed charm and wit — even filtered through a translator — with outbursts of temper and emotion, such as his anger over being denied the opportunity to visit Disneyland.
Viewed as an evil figure in part because of his notorious, “We will bury you!” quote, Khrushchev exchanged playful (and at times not-so-playful) insults with politicians, rubbed the bellies of obese Americans and hugged children. When he meets with a room filled with Hollywood talent, a TV reporter quickly finds Marilyn Monroe, who struggles to come up with an appropriately benign comment.
Featuring interviews with journalists and historians as well as Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, and President Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan, the special captures the very real fear of nuclear annihilation, and how Khrushchev willingly became the U.S.’ most unexpected media star. There’s also a “what-if” quality to the U-2 spy plane incident that prevented a reciprocal trip by Eisenhower to the Soviet Union, especially given the Cuban Missile Crisis that followed.
Khrushchev, alas, never got to see the Magic Kingdom. But for students of history, or simply those who can recall duck-and-cover drills, “Cold War Roadshow” is an “E” ticket ride.
If Khrushchev’s antics at times border on comedy, grimness is all that’s on offer in “Firestone and the Warlord,” another meticulous documentary — written, produced and directed by Marcela Gaviria — detailing the tire company’s business dealings with brutal dictator Charles Taylor, ostensibly to keep viable its interest in the world’s largest rubber plantation.
Working with reporters Jonathan Jones and T. Christian Miller, Gaviria covers the history of Liberia and the corruption of leader Samuel Doe, who was captured, tortured and killed in 1990 as part of a civil war, as the documentary notes, “marked by atrocities on all sides.”
Interviewing former U.S. officials and Firestone employees who oversaw the plantation, the project (which will expand to multimedia with a related e-book and digital shorts) uses court documents and diplomatic cables to expose how the U.S.-based manufacturer funneled money to Taylor — clearly a Faustian bargain in the midst of chaos, but one that strengthened the despot’s position, even as he waged war using child soldiers, whose stomach-turning crimes included murdering pregnant women.
As the documentary makes clear, Firestone had relatively few palatable options in a country that was descending into chaos, and in some respects had more opportunity to do good by staying put rather than by abandoning its workforce there. Yet as one official concludes, its complicity with Taylor leaves the appearance of blood on its hands, and raises questions about corporate responsibility and colonialism in politically troubled regions that are home to vast natural resources.
With Liberia in the headlines because of Ebola, “Firestone and the Warlord” if nothing else offers a sobering but necessary history lesson. And however much Firestone tries to finesse its involvement, for the purposes of this discussion, the sorry state of the nation in which it continues to operate is, ultimately, where the rubber meets the road.