As the opening frames of this documentary flickered by, The Boy leaned in and whispered, “I may have f***ed this up.”
We were out and about after lunch on a weekday, which is rare, and he said, “Hey, if we keep driving this direction, we could go to the movies.” But literally the only thing playing (that we hadn’t seen) was The Diplomat, about Richard Holbrooke, whom neither of us knew.
Then, in those opening frames, we’re treated to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s effervescence, and that’s when The Boy made his comment.
This is the story of Mr. Holbrooke, from his early days in Vietnam to his final days under Obama and HRC, as told by his son, David, with occasional interviews of David’s brother, mother, and Richard Holbrooke’s second wife as well as one-time girlfriend, Diane Sawyer. (Republicans and conservatives need not apply.)
However, this is not a bad movie. And where the upcoming documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy seems to showcase men who were pretty good fathers, except for the whole Nazi thing, this documentary might be summed up as “Yeah, he stopped some genocide, but he wasn’t a great father.”
I’m joking—somewhat—since David doesn’t harp on his father’s paternal failings for the most part, though clearly they still affect his family, but it was interesting to observe that we’ve seen a lot of hagiographies over the years, and this isn’t one of them.
The ambassador’s big ambition in life was to be Secretary of State. He was appalled, and outspoken, with how the Vietnam war was handled, and when he got his chance in the ’90s to work out a peace between the Bosnians, Croats and the murderous Serb, Slobodan Milosevic, it was clear he grasped the fundamental principle of diplomacy: “Work with us to get everyone something they can live with, or we’ll kill you.”
There’s a telling moment when Holbrooke has his second wife at a dinner with Milosovic and (I think) Izetbegovic, with the mission to get them to talk, and she says in desperation, “How did this war start anyway.”
Milosevic: “I did not think it would last this long.”
Izetbegovic: “I did not think it would last this long, either.”
Ain’t it always the way? Powers get involved in wars they think will be quick and glorious.
On the personal front, Holbrooke’s ambition was thwarted in turn by Clinton having Madeline Albright be his SoS, Gore losing the election in 2000, Kerry losing it in 2004, and HRC being Obama’s SoS in 2008. Because, of course, HRC would be the better SoS than Holbrooke. The movie spends no time detailing her horrible disrespect of Holbrooke—David probably didn’t know about the emails at the time of this filming—but it doesn’t hesitate to paint Obama as the narcissitic ideologue he seems to be.
Obviously, 44 isn’t behind the whole “we’ll kill you” aspect of diplomacy. Holbrooke was given the task of handling Afghanistan and Iraq diplomatically, and he wastes no time in bashing the handling of those areas up to that point, but Obama constantly undermined him at every turn, having many different people putting lines into those areas, such that the leaders there did not know who spoke for the government.
There’s a thick wrapping of gauze around the whole thing—not from the fact of a father-son relationship, but from the self-serving nature of virtually everyone else involved. Al Gore gets to tell us how his daughter came to him and goaded him into supporting intervention, for example, because of a photo of a woman who hanged herself after being gang-raped.
Because nothing awful like that was going on anywhere else in the world, right? The Clinton administration saw injustice and had to act!
I’m sure it wasn’t David’s intention—reasonably sure, anyway—to present this litany of failures eulogizing over his father in such a way that their own failures are thrown into sharp contrast: Besides Gore and HRC, we get Kerry, Samantha Powers, and—here’s a sentence you’re unlikely to read again anytime soon—Ronan Farrow, of all people, comes off looking among the best. All of Holbrooke’s team did, pretty much, because they had a clear goal, a clear plan and a clear desire to accomplish it, which was thwarted by the higher ups. (And might not have worked anyway but couldn’t, as we see at this late date, have made things any worse.)
So if you can get past this, and past the fact that the blithe intermingling of our political “elite” and our media “elite” is so complete that it’s not even worthy of note, this is a nice little “letter to my father” kind of doc.
Oh, right, the three point scale:
- Subject matter is interesting. Holbrooke is both interesting as a person and as a historical figure.
- The technique is very competent: A mix of people who knew him and footage, along with narration about events keeps the viewer interested.
- Bias: Not what you might think. There’s no hagiography, on a personal level for sure, but I also think David avoids deifying his father’s skills. There’s a bias that comes from soaking constantly in the “conventional wisdom” of the Acela corridor, but I think even that isn’t as bad as we’ve seen in other docs.
So, we didn’t feel like we’d effed up, as The Boy first worried, and ultimately I found it to be rather touching. Your mileage may vary, of course.