Villains sometimes get away with posing as heroes. In The Trials of Henry Kissinger, the famed elder statesman is unmasked by intense scrutiny of his alleged war crimes in the 1960s and 1970s. Behind the scenes, this unflinching documentary is also a tale of disillusionment. Director Eugene Jarecki experienced a personal arc of change in researching his thorough portrait of a man with many faces. The movie maker will be on hand when the 80-minute project opens this weekend at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier.
Jarecki grew up in a family that revered Kissinger for his positive accomplishments, such as opening the door to China. They were unaware that he was a key architect of suspect activities in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
"My father left Germany a year after Kissinger did in the late 1930s, so we thought he was an immigrant refugee success story," the New York City resident recalled from Waitsfield, where he was visiting friends last week. "It was only much later that I learned I'd been told nothing."
Now 32, Jarecki stumbled upon the awful truth over the last few years. He was stunned to discover Kissinger's role in backing Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew the democratically elected Chilean president in 1973. An untold number of civilians were slaughtered during an almost two-decade reign of terror. "I thought, 'My God, this is important.' It spurred me to read work by William Shawcross, Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens," Jarecki says of the acclaimed authors who appear as talking heads in his expose.
Much of the unauthorized biopic -- written by co-producer Alex Gibney -- is based on Hitchens' articles in Harper's magazine and subsequent 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. On screen, the caustic Brit is an unrelenting critic of the longtime diplomat: "He's a liar. And he's personally responsible for murder, for kidnapping, for torture."
Conversely, Kissinger ally Alexander Haig suggests on camera that Hitchens "sucks the sewer pipe."
Jarecki's searing indictment, which uses previously unseen footage and newly declassified Freedom of Information documents, chronicles how Haig helped Kissinger plot the clandestine 1969 bombing of Cambo-dia. Three years later, the Christmas air assault on North Vietnam was "mass murder from the sky," says Hitchens.
The most cynical ploy attributed to Kissinger was probably the 1973 Vietnam peace accord. Apparently, the terms were almost identical to those he had negotiated -- but then scuttled -- in 1968, while serving as Lyndon Johnson's consultant. The aim of this betrayal was to make the Republicans look more adept than the Democrats at stopping the increasingly unpopular war. His double-dealing was largely unknown when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.
Parenthetically, some of Kissinger's nefarious schemes might have been hatched in the Green Mountain State. Hersh's book, The Price of Power, cites a 1967 trip: "[His] friends from Harvard recall a Vermont weekend in early October when he ran up a huge telephone bill at a colleague's vacation retreat talking to President Johnson and others." Could those "others" have included Kissinger's accomplices in the Nixon camp?
Hitchens accuses Kissinger of genocide for "half the names on the Vietnam Mem-orial" in Washington, thousands more war dead in Indochina and -- thanks to destabilization of the entire region -- as many as three million Cambodians later killed by the Khmer Rouge.
But Southeast Asia was only one of the geographical hot spots that bear Kissinger's fingerprints. In East Timor, a third of the population was slain as the result of 1975 U.S. arms sales to Indonesia.
Before briefly pursuing the kind of Hollywood notoriety that he now dismisses, Jarecki was a Princeton University grad with a major in theater and politics. But a more eye-opening education, he says, "happened in the real world. With Kissinger, I came full circle. I went from admiration to pain and outrage."
The BBC-funded production, shot with a mere $500,000 between November 2001 and February 2002, deals with history. But many believe the contemporary White House is concocting new lies. "We can use the lessons of the past to look at the present," Jarecki suggests. "How much secrecy in government will we accept? I hope people start thinking about U.S. accountability under international law and the role of morality in the conduct of public policy."
Although documentaries tend to have a limited audience, he's not fretting that his message may only reach the already converted. "Preaching to the choir is crucial," Jarecki contends. "I want to let them know some part of this revolution will be televised.