Left-wing documentaries are popular in New York City these days. I’ve been
to two this week: The Trials of Henry
Kissinger on Thursday afternoon, and Bowling
for Columbine on Sunday night. Both showings were almost sold out, and the
latter film managed to gross over $200,000 in just eight theatres over the weekend:
that’s over three times as much, on a per-theatre basis, than any of the top
It’s fashionable to sneeer at Michael Moore, the Man Who Would Be Schlub who’s
actually an Upper East Side millionaire. But at the same time, as my friend
Kieran once said of the Guardian‘s Matthew Norman, I think he’s some
kind of genius. The same can, unfortunately, not be said of Eugene Jarecki,
the director of the Kissinger film.
I would highly recommend that anybody interested in Kissinger read either Christopher
Hitchens’ two original articles for Harper’s magazine, or else the book
they were turned into. The idea behind the project was not to simply rehash
the same old stories about US agression that we’ve all heard a hundred times
from Chomsky, Sontag and the lefty-peacenik-crunchy-granola crowd. Rather, Hitchens
had the genius idea to take the public evidence which is currently available,
and turn it into a prosecutor’s brief. With forensics always uppermost in his
mind, he builds a very strong case that Henry Kissinger can and should be prosecuted
under international law for crimes against humanity: others have been sentenced
to long jail sentences or even death for much lesser crimes.
Film, however, is not a medium naturally suited to jurisprudence or the following
of paper trails. It’s also especially ill-suited to the slow and painstaking
way in which Hitchens shows Kissinger to be situated at the top of a pyramid
which controlled all aspects of US national security, from the armed forces
to the CIA.
So although the film starts off by talking about Hitchens’ war-criminal thesis,
in fact it never even so much as bothers to say which crimes, specifically,
he’s guilty of. Rather, we’re given a shallow history of US involvement in Indochina,
East Timor, and Chile, with an emphasis on the way in which Kissinger personally
bears responsibility for countless deaths in each one.
The film is also very confused about whether it’s meant to be a crusading piece
of passionate partisan rhetoric, or whether it would rather be an objective
judge of Hitchens’ accusations. It makes noises towards the latter at its start,
but there’s no evidence at all that a genuinely critical eye was ever brought
to bear on what Hitchens has to say. All we get in the film is Kissinger’s former
lieutenant Alexander Haig doing his best impression of a lunatic reds-under-the-beds
type, admitting he hasn’t even read the book under discussion, and calling Hitchens
a "sewer pipe sucker". All most entertaining, but hardly edifying.
Surely Jarecki could have found an academic somewhere who could at least attempt
to place Kissinger’s actions in their Cold War context.
Michael Moore, on the other hand, in Bowling for Columbine, has complete
freedom to do whatever he wants, since he never even bothers with a pretense
of objectivity. Sometimes he goes too far, as when he attempts to draw some
kind of connection between domestic gun violence in the US, Kissinger’s misadventures
in Indochina (ITMA),
and Osama Bin Laden’s attacks on September 11. Moore also seems to have no sense
of restraint or control. This can be a good thing, as when he badgers Terry
Nichols’ gun-nut brother James to the point where he finally admits that maybe
civilians shouldn’t be allowed weapons-grade plutonium on the grounds that "there
are some wackos out there"; but it also means extremely graphic footage
of people getting shot or the second plane flying into the World Trade Center
which I, for one, could certainly have done without. (The footage was so graphic
that it made it very difficult to concentrate on what was going on in the film
for the next few minutes.)
What Moore lacks in understatement he more than makes up for in filmmaking
ability: he keeps the movie galloping along, even when he himself has no idea
where it’s going. The film starts off seemingly about white kids with guns,
but moves on to the broader culture of violence in the USA, gets sidetracked
by tying that in to racism (via a clip from South Park) and the relationship
between white suburbs and the black inner city, then decides that it’s not guns
which kill people, it’s fear which kills people, before finally ending
on a point of some confusion in the wake of an interview with Charlton Heston.
Along the way, Moore manages, with the help of a couple of kids who
got shot at Columbine, to persuade Kmart to stop selling ammunition for handguns.
It’s a major victory, and even he is shocked that he actually managed to make
something happen: when the flack from the company announces the new policy,
he can barely believe what he’s hearing.
Moore also scores what must be one of the biggest coups of his television interviewing
career: talking to Charlton Heston in his Beverley Hills pool house, he gets
Moses to blame the number of gun deaths in the USA on this country’s "multiethnic"
nature. It’s a shocking moment: the whole cinema as one took a sharp intake
of breath and turned to the person sitting next to them with a "did he
really say what I think he just said?" look.
Of course, Moore also takes gratuitous potshots at George W Bush, which got
the cinema hooting with laughter, as when he replays one of those press conferences
where the President warns of a grave but utterly unknowable danger, and blames
"evildoers" for the heinous acts which haven’t actually happened yet.
It’s at times like these that Moore is at his best: while Roger
and Me had enough narrative drive to structure a feature-length documentary,
Bowling for Columbine feels more like a concatenation of TV-sized bites.
To his credit, however, Moore does leave us with more questions than answers,
and even shows two sides of himself: on the one hand the New York liberal we
all know only too well, but on the other hand the lifelong member of the NRA
who really believes that it’s possible to have widespread gun ownership alongside
nugatory gun violence. (Moore spends a lot of time developing this thread in
Canada, to no obvious punchline.)
So don’t see The Trials of Henry Kissinger, read the book instead.
And do see Bowling for Columbine: you’ll have a great time, and get
to meet some very interesting Americans in the process.