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A Viewer's Guide

TV and DVD releases worth watching

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This month, the Sundance Channel will be broadcasting Eugene Jarecki's The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Those who have access to the channel should make a point of catching it (and perhaps taping it for less television-enabled friends). There's no date for a video release, so for the foreseeable future this month's broadcasts will be the only opportunity to see the film. For the schedule, see www.sundancechannel.com.

In any event, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a powerful document of a time when America's top leaders threw the nation's weight around the world in murderous fashion, and took the trouble to keep it secret from its own people, and sometimes, even from Congress. Anyone tempted to buy into the Bush administration's sanctimonious rhetoric about improving the world through "pre-emptive war" and "regime change" will be quickly dissuaded by this documentary.

Although the film is directed by Eugene Jarecki, a 33-year-old filmmaker who was a toddler when Kissinger was committing his most egregious crimes against humanity, fans and enemies of writer Christopher Hitchens will recognize the film's title as that of his 2001 book-length polemic. In his book, Hitchens argues that Kissinger, who was national security advisor to Nixon and secretary of state under Ford, should be hauled before an international tribunal on war crimes charges.

Hitchens mounts a devastating case against Kissinger for having had a direct hand in some of America's ugliest foreign policy excursions between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s. (The writer--who has lately become a pariah of the American left for his support of Bush's foreign policies--appears prominently in the film, full of righteous ardor.)

The film begins with Kissinger's duplicity during the 1968 election, in which he attended the secret peace negotiations between the outgoing Johnson administration and representatives of North Vietnam. Although Kissinger was supposedly a neutral academic observer, he secretly reported back to the Nixon camp, which wanted to see the talks collapse in order to deny its opponent, Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, a political boost from having secured peace.

With the aid of Kissinger's counsel, Nixon's representatives persuaded South Vietnam to back out of the talks. A few days later, Nixon was elected by a razor-thin margin. When peace finally arrived in Vietnam, five years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, the armistice terms were almost exactly what the Johnson administration had nearly secured.

For aiding Nixon's election by helping to sabotage the Paris peace talks, Kissinger was rewarded with a powerful post in the new administration. The film then recounts Kissinger's appalling reign of terror: directing the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia; directing the CIA-sponsored assassination of liberal Chilean military figure René Schneider; directing the CIA's destabilization of the leftist Allende government there; and acceding to the Indonesian army's slaughter of the East Timorese in 1975 with American munitions. It's a horrifying resume, but, as the film acknowledges, Kissinger is probably untouchable. (The United States is not among the 179 nations that have signed on to the International Criminal Court. Protecting the likes of Kissinger is surely a consideration.)

Strikingly, the film's most powerful testimony comes from conscience-stricken staff members, CIA agents, ambassadors and military attaches. Among them is the United States' former bagman in Chile--an evidently ill, speech-impaired man--who was charged with handing out wads of U.S. currency to encourage work stoppages and other destabilizing acts. Responding to Kissinger's congressional testimony in which he denied involvement in the Allende coup, the man croaks, "He's a liar."

Kissinger naturally refused to appear before Jarecki's camera, but the director and his co-producer Alex Gibney make skillful use of the diplomat's many television appearances over the years. The film closes with an excerpt from a 1979 interview in which Kissinger offers the closest thing to a mea culpa that we are likely to get, saying, "The average person thinks that morality can be applied as directly to the conduct of states as to human relations. That is not always the case. Sometimes statesmen have to choose among evils."

Although the local arthouses do an admirable job of bringing in high-quality foreign films and independent documentaries, there are many, many excellent titles that don't make it into their theaters. Happily, some of these films are finding new life on DVD, and Facets Video--a small distributor from Chicago--has a couple of excellent films among their recent releases.

One of them is Muhammad Ali: The Greatest. Directed by the celebrated photographer William Klein, this is and on-and-off again documentary of 10 years in the career of the boxer who began life in Louisville, Ky. as Cassius Clay.

Klein was granted extraordinary access to perhaps the most charismatic sportsman the world has ever known. For those who know Muhammad Ali chiefly as the sadly punch-drunk middle-aged character who appears on television from time to time, this film makes it clear why he was such an electrifying figure in his heyday.

Klein begins his film with the Sonny Liston fight in 1964, in which the flamboyant, charming and rapping figure of Clay (as he was then known) ruffles the feathers of whites who expected black athletes to be quiet and deferential in public (as was Liston). Here, there's an extraordinary series of close-ups of the "Louisville Syndicate," a group of white businessmen who'd sponsored Clay's early career and were mystified by their protégé's increasingly independent behavior. Klein also takes his cameras to the streets and we see Miami's jubilant blacks chanting the refrain of a new era, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!"

The film is a time-capsule of a bygone America and also the emergence of the age of celebrity--as when the Beatles share a photo-op with Clay during their first tour of the United States. Some important black figures appear in the film as well: Most apposite is the glimpse of an aging Stepin Fetchit, a movie clown in the 1930s and '40s who would later be derided as an embarrassing darkie. But Fetchit was a black comic hero in his day, and within his limited range of options, he could be very funny. Just by being included in Ali's entourage, a belated dignity is conferred upon him.

There is also an eloquent appearance by Malcolm X, who dissects the meaning of the Ali phenomenon. (In his brief, informative commentary track, Klein makes the distressing revelation that Malcolm was assassinated only two weeks after the interview.)

The film ends with the 1974 fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, the famous "Rumble in the Jungle." Klein nimbly captures the phenomenal experience and there's wonderful footage of the local festivities. The Mobutu sightings are unsettling, but the upstart promoter Don King comes off surprising well, describing his pride as a black man organizing a bout between two black fighters for a black audience. The vanquished, bruised Foreman makes for a compelling subject, moving gracefully and gently among a group of children.

Facets has also released It All Starts Today, a marvelous film from veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But). This film was little-seen on this side of the ocean and it's not surprising, considering its star-free cast and its unsexy subject--a kindergarten for at-risk children. (North Carolina viewers may be struck by the resemblance of the film's star, Philippe Torreton, to Senator John Edwards. It's a comparison that, in the context of the film's themes, should flatter Edwards.)

The film is set in a small, dying coal-mining community--the French equivalent of West Virginia. Times have never been good, but now that the mine is closed, unemployment is at 34 percent and the adults have all but given up. In this desperate milieu, Daniel Lefebvre (Torreton) runs a kindergarten with minimal assistance (and considerable interference) from local bureaucrats. At home, he's struggling to achieve domestic tranquility with his artist girlfriend and her resentful son.

Daniel, himself a product of an abusive coal-miner and doormat mother, tries to hold his school together against impossible odds. The children show up dirty, hungry and sometimes cut and bruised. Their parents are defeated and often indifferent, while Daniel's over-burdened staff is demoralized. During the course of the film, some terrible things occur and, after the worst of them, it seems that Daniel won't make it.

But It All Starts Today--as depressing as it is in places--never gives up. It's about fighting back, and never, ever failing the children, no matter what. Beautifully photographed, scored and acted, it's as life-affirming as a social-realist film can get without averting its gaze from the intractability of the problems. The film's title is as earnest and earned as it sounds. EndBlock

At present, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest doesn't seem to be available locally, but It All Starts Today can be found at VisArt. To purchase either film, e-mail the distributor at sales@facets.org.

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