Review: Christopher Hitchens Kills Your Idols

Three of Christopher Hitchens' targets: Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana

“‘Fan’, we’d do well to remember, is derived from ‘fanatic’.”

Columnist, author and speaker Christopher Hitchens was provocative and contrarian, as is the want of a polemicist. The video essays based on his books were often as much about the beloved or revered public figures which they discussed, as they were about celebrity, media manipulation, and the tides of public opinion. These essays (or “pamphlets”, as described their producersare as much about debunking popular myths as they are about the effects of doing so: whose feathers are ruffled, and what that tells us about them, about us.

“The notion of an icon or a role model is an essentially futile one, because it holds up an ideal that by definition is unattainable. As a result, we encourage the worship of a mere human being – and the hysteria that’s inseparable from it.”

– Christopher Hitchens, Diana: The Mourning After (1998)


The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)

Based on what was originally published as two long-form print essays, The Trials Of Henry Kissinger builds the case that the former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, be tried as a war criminal for crimes against humanity. While some of the more damning evidence examined here only came to light in the years immediately prior to Hitchens’ writing, many of the facts in this case had already long been a matter of public record. So what made Hitchens’ assertion so controversial? Why was Kissinger so well-regarded? According to Hitchens, Kissinger’s career and reputation were built in large part on political and media manipulation:


Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1994)

Hell’s Angel remains one of the more surprising examples, both in its choice of target and the “moral and ethical confusion” presented by that target, Mother Teresa. Hitchens has 24 minutes to counter years of narrative, a world’s worth of unanimous admiration and praise for a dubiously “saintly” figure: the contradictions of her charity work versus her medieval ideas about women’s health; the dissonance between her public image and the machinations that help perpetuate it; and, for the self-proclaimed “anti-theist” presenter, the paradox of Christian messaging about compassion when viewed against its conditional and specific practice:

Fun follow-up: the inevitable response, which was hosted by C4’s Right To Reply:

 


Diana: The Mourning After (1998)

First: the criticism. Diana: The Mourning After is perhaps the more disappointing of these three. Its worthy premise – examining the how and why of public hysteria – is executed in a style less journalistic and more anecdotal. Certain sources (eg. a certain “no bullshit” newspaper) are outright antagonistic, and their inclusion here does a disservice to a point worth exploring, and reveals Hitchens to be, at least in this instance, tipping over from forensic to cheaply snide.

This is all to say nothing of the Oliver Stone-conspiracy-thriller aesthetic. Newspaper headlines flash past in glitchy, fast-paced overlays. Interviews are presented via conspiratorial coverage, over-the-shoulder, in extreme close-ups – techniques which crescendo in the treatment of final interview subject, journalist Anthony Holden, this pamphlet’s Donald “X” Sutherland to Hitch’s Kevin “Jim Garrison” Costner. Montages cross-cut between genuine and faux archival footage, and are soundtracked with non-diegetic audio of hysterical wailing and ominous music cues. These are all conscious editing choices (and curious choices at that, given Hitchens’ own view of Stone’s JFK), designed to create a certain mood, perhaps to ironically mirror the Diana mourning phenomenon. These choices are also unfortunately subliminal and inherently manipulative by their very nature – manipulation cannot be simulated, even “ironically”.

It’s unfortunate, because Diana: The Mourning After‘s failure to lead by rational example – to be the “bigger man” essentially – is a missed teaching opportunity. It reduces what could have been a call for level-headedness to a hypocritically snarky snap-back. (It even concludes with Hitchens petulantly advising the hysterical masses to “get a life”).

Nonetheless, even within the at-times-swampy tone here, the pertinent point is made: it is a dangerous land in which to live where a mere question is forbidden. The shop owner who questions the fortune that must have been spent on flowers for a dead woman championed, supposedly, for her charity work; the journalist who points out that the same people who call for the heads of the murderous paparazzi are now scrambling to take photos of a coffin; the cognitive dissonance in the same people who shut down the rational questioning of others, where the popular sentiment is determined not by the objective percentage, but by the more vocally emotional. “Taste” is a wavering, transient thing; human custom is often, when unquestioned, devoid of human substance; people’s short-term memories, their arbitrarily selective pruning of facts to suit a more desirable narrative, is terrifying because, ultimately, it ushers tyranny and heralds human catastrophe:

This one seems to keep appearing and disappearing from YouTube – if the video above is broken, hopefully the clip below, where Hitchens summarises his position, works (here’s the full one-hour program it’s taken from):