In the opening moments, “The Diplomat” feels like it might be another one of those documentaries more about the filmmaker than the subject, especially with David Holbrooke – the eldest son of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke – talking in voiceover about the prospect of getting to know his dad “better in death than I did in life.” Stick with it, though, and this slightly overlong film, getting a showcase on HBO, provides a fascinating plunge into the balancing act of diplomacy, featuring top-tier interviews and an in-depth look at the brinkmanship surrounding the international negotiations that defined Richard’s globetrotting career.
The elder Holbrooke died suddenly of a heart attack in 2010. Having begun his international exploits as one of the Best and Brightest in Vietnam, he later cobbled together a grudging peace in Bosnia during the Clinton administration, which may have been his signature achievement. Ambassadorships and international assignments followed, including for the Obama administration, but Holbrooke’s thinly veiled desire to be Secretary of State was never realized, in part because Al Gore didn’t become president.
Through interviews with seemingly every high-powered figure who crossed Holbrooke’s path – including Gore and Bill and Hillary Clinton, with the latter saying Holbrooke “had his own energy field” – the son paints a thorough picture of his father.
What really stands out, though, are the interviews with those who sat across the negotiating table from Holbrooke, such as Bosnian president Bakir Izetbegovic. That’s augmented by Holbrooke’s diary entries and audio recordings from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, to whom Holbrooke was a source, providing eerie insight from the great beyond into his line of thinking and clashes with the Obama administration shortly before he died, citing concerns about a “resource/mission mismatch” in Afghanistan.
In terms of the civil war in the Balkans, “The Diplomat” provides a detailed tick-tock of the negotiations, shedding considerable light on the delicate nature of diplomacy – which, as some of Holbrooke’s associates note, is seemingly frowned upon today in modern conservative political circles as a sign of weakness, with being inflexible and tough trumping (or perhaps, Trump-ing) all. Tellingly, the airing is timed to the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Obviously, there’s something intensely personal about Holbrooke’s son writing, directing and narrating the film, but in some respects, the biographical elements are its weakest sections. The elder Holbrooke was someone who traveled in elite political and media circles (Diane Sawyer, with whom he was romantically involved), and as is noted time and again, thrived on the international stage.
In that respect, sometimes getting to know the private man isn’t always as interesting as the public one. Fortunately, Richard Holbrooke left a detailed record of what feels like more than one lifetime’s worth of events and accomplishments.