October 14, 2011 10:17 pm

No judge, no jury, no executioner

Two separate portraits of Irish rock band U2 and US statesman Henry Kissinger expose the limits of interview-led documentaries

Television is our greatest point of access to the powerful and famous, but on whose terms? Those lucky enough to have seen Molly Dineen’s documentary Geri, about former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, will know that a penetrating interviewer, accompanied by a camera crew, can lay a subject bare. Mostly, though, such documentaries function more as vanity project than searing exposé, as authorised biography rather than warts-and-all portraiture. The fly-on-the-wall vérité documentaries of the 1960s and 70s bizarrely and disappointingly chose subjects (Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, the Kennedys, Mick Jagger) with experience of performing on film. If ever there were a phrase employed in disproportion to the phenomenon it names, it is surely “behind the scenes”.

The problem with the collusive, interview-led documentary is that it possesses limited means of questioning or situating the subject’s (or subjects’) testimony. The Imagine strand’s U2: From the Sky Down (BBC1 Sunday), a documentary about the recording of the album Achtung Baby in Berlin, was a bad case of this, but nothing next to True Stories: Kissinger (More4 Tuesday), which allowed the German-American academic-turned-statesman to tell his own story – “story” being exactly the right word. The programme contained archive footage, played recordings and showed documents that contradicted what Henry Kissinger had just claimed, but his testimony was given centre stage, and though his interviewer, Niall Ferguson, asked tough questions, he didn’t ask tough follow-up questions – he just let Kissinger talk.

The programme picked up on Kissinger’s relationship with Richard Nixon in 1969, thereby overlooking his conduct during the close-run 1968 Nixon-Humphrey election, when he ingratiated himself with both parties to ensure a role in the next administration. Kissinger was advising the outgoing Johnson administration during the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese, but from September 1968 onwards he started passing information on to Nixon, who was able, via various channels, to persuade the South Vietnamese to hold out for a better deal – a move that served to undermine his opponent’s main electoral promise. When a peace treaty was finally signed in 1973 the deal was the same, but by that time another 20,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese had been killed. It is typical of Kissinger that he has moaned to the director Adrian Pennick about the film’s emphasis when he ought to have been kissing his feet.

Not that Kissinger emerged as a stand-up guy throughout. When he referred to “the so-called secret bombing” of Cambodia, the documentary rightly suggested that the bombing of Cambodia is called “secret” because it was secret. The airmen assigned to drop bombs on “anything that moves” (Nixon’s words) were also instructed to falsify their flight reports. Kissinger said that “almost no civilian population” was killed by the secret bombing, that the US government had “nothing to do with the military coup” in Chile in 1973 – Ferguson just let it slide.

Similarly, Kissinger said his aim was to bring peace to the world, but US activities in Cambodia indirectly, and inadvertently, gave strength to the Khmer Rouge, while the Chile coup led directly, and desiredly, to the emergence of Augusto Pinochet. True Stories got through its 97 minutes without discussion of Pinochet – or East Timor or Bangladesh. “Hi there, I loved all your wars”: Robin Williams’s imagined greeting to Kissinger, delivered on Saturday Night Live in 1990, is worth remembering when his apologists invoke his Nobel Peace Prize or celebrate him as the modern-day master of 19th-century realpolitik.

Kissinger is now an energetic-looking 88-year-old, while one of his great critics, Tony Judt, died last year aged 62, and another, Christopher Hitchens, is 62 and suffering from oesophagal cancer. Access may be over-rated in the making of documentaries, but with the right subject it can make for gripping and inspiring viewing, as in the remarkable documentary Still Life: A Short Film about Tony Judt (http://tinyurl.com/3cmlkq6), in which the historian is interviewed about his work and the disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, from which he was visibly and audibly suffering.

YouTube is valuable not only as a site for such independent, online-only work but as a resource for old material that might correct, or give context to, recently screened programmes. We can turn, for example, to the interview in which Hitchens sets out his case for Kissinger as a perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity (http://tiny.cc/l5ihs) to pad out the evasive, threadbare narrative offered by True Stories. Then there is The Trials of Henry Kissinger (http://tiny.cc/vyjl9), a polemical documentary built on the testimony of those people who uncovered facts that Kissinger has never formally denied – Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, William Shawcross, and Kissinger’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who gave him a harder time than Niall Ferguson looks likely to in his forthcoming authorised biography.

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