There’s a deeper, more enriching story that could have been told about Richard Holbrooke the man.
From the early ‘60s right up until his death in 2010 at age 69, Richard Holbrooke was a fixture in the world of international politics. It started with his work in the Foreign Service in Vietnam, supporting economic development in the region at the same time that John F. Kennedy Jr. and Lyndon Johnson were escalating the war effort. He proved so invaluable to the diplomacy effort that the White House invited him to be part of the peace talks in Paris that helped end the conflict. And it all ended as he struggled to support the Obama administration’s fight against the Taliban in the Middle East, serving as Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. If there’s anyone who deserves his own documentary, it’s Richard Holbrooke, a man who emphasized civilian surges over military surges in embattled parts of the world, and was able to broker a peace accord between the nations that made up the former Yugoslavia.
Said documentary, The Diplomat, goes one step further and tries to paint a portrait of Holbrooke’s career that also incorporated his fraught relationships with his family and friends. And who better to tell that story than one of his sons, director David Holbrooke. A former TV producer and the co-producer of an even deeper and more damning portrait of international politics, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, the younger Holbrooke is clear-eyed and intelligent about telling his father’s story. He is especially successful in this regard by persuading the former and current Secretaries of State under our current Commander In Chief, former President Bill Clinton, and various other dignitaries from around the world to speak on camera.
David Holbrooke also doesn’t shy away from showing just how much his father adored the celebrity and recognition that came with his position. The Dayton peace talks turned Richard into the public face of the conflict here in the States and he drank in the media attention. You have to have a fair amount of ego and fearlessness to do that kind of diplomatic work, and the elder Holbrooke had that in spades.
The troubling part of this story is that Richard’s family tended to get little attention as he hopped around the globe on his assignments to Kosovo, Serbia, and beyond. His family followed him to a number of these countries, but he had little time to give them. David tries gamely to include that element into the film, but pulls his punches. Just as he’s about to delve into his disappointment at not getting as much of his father’s time as he would have liked, he zooms back out to the global picture and focuses on reminding the audience of the lives Richard saved with his tireless work. The only real emotion we get out of David on this front is when he is reduced to tears when reading over the notes that spelled out Richard’s last words as he was rushed to the emergency room prior to his death.
The title of this film is completely apropos. But there’s a deeper, more enriching story that could have been told about Richard Holbrooke the man. David needed to either set all emotion aside to simply focus on those diplomatic accomplishments and the exhaustive amounts of energy Richard put into them, or just let that be the background in featuring a look at the personal life of this geopolitical genius.