The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Watching The Trials of Henry Kissinger (IMDB), Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film based on Christopher Hitchens’ controversial book, I found myself increasingly troubled by the accusations against the former secretary of state. I was already aware of many of these accusations such as claims that Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War and that he supported the Chilean coup that replaced the democratically-elected Allende with war criminal Pinochet, so I wanted a better understanding of how the film produced the response that it did.

As Roger Ebert’s review suggests, the film’s partisan take on Kissinger is a little too transparent. Kissinger’s opponents, including Hitchens, are given ample time to state their case, to lay out their arguments in some detail. His supporters, however, including Alexander Haig, often appear to have their comments taken out of context. This technique is not unfamiliar in documentary media, of course, and I was certainly aware of the careful framing of Kissinger’s story, the fact that the film had already essentially framed things through a loaded question, presuming his guilt in advance. Such an approach does not imply anything about Kissinger’s guilt or innocence (I think there are sound reasons to question Kissinger’s “diplomacy”), but this approach may actually be detrimental to understanding his role in American and world politics in the 1960s and 70s.

What I found interesting about the film is its loose reliance on the genre of the trial movie (for an excellent analysis, see Carol J. Clover’s discussion of this genre) to make its case. As Clover points out, courtroom dramas position viewers “not as passive spectators but as active ones, viewers with a job to do.”* While Trials is not properly a courtroom drama, it does clearly position the viewers as “jurors,” presenting evidence that we are then asked to negotiate. Unlike many trial movies, however, the viewer-juror is left somewhat powerless. We’ve seen the evidence (stacked as it might be), but we are prevented from seeing any form of justice served, essentially short-circuiting what had been until the end of the film our active role in sifting through the evidence, leaving me feeling a pretty intense feeling of passivity. I haven’t completely worked through these ideas, but I think Clover’s discussion of the courtroom drama may explain in part why this film left me feeling so uncomfortable.

* Clover, “Judging Audiences,” in Reinventing Film Studies, 246.

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