After Richard Holbrooke died on December 13, 2010, former president Bill Clinton remarked, why does he have to die? The world is falling apart, and "here's a guy who can put things together." That was a sentiment shared by many. Both Clintons knew Richard Holbrooke quite well, his son David did not know him so much. Watching HBO's documentary, The Diplomat, offers a generous glimpse into Washington circles, and an important era in American history.
In the opening sequence, Hillary Clinton weighs in: Richard Holbrooke had his own energy field, or as Mike Taibbi says, "He had size." What are you going to call your film, Clinton asks his son, David, who set out on a journey following his father's 50 year career attempting to understand his often absent father. She nods in approval when he says The Diplomat.
A good part of David Holbrooke's documentary retraces his father's locations, traveling to Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Dayton, Ohio, Afghanistan. The film benefits from evocative archival footage, a cache of photos, and extraordinary letters his father wrote to his mother Letty when he was in Vietnam while he was in his early 20's, determined to record his experience in an epistolary fashion. David also interviewed many family members and colleagues: David's brother Anthony, the Clintons, Diane Sawyer, Christiane Amanpour, Al Gore, his father's second wife Kati Marton, and many friends. While President Obama was not entirely a fan, he appreciated Holbrooke's importance.
Holbrooke's career as Diplomat took him to Sarajevo and Kosovo, where he had his greatest success brokering peace. And more recently he was in Afghanistan. One sequence revisits a particularly perilous road where three Americans died in an overturned vehicle that hit some land mines. You cannot help thinking about the accusatory spotlight on Hillary Clinton regarding those who died in Benghazi. Never have Holbrooke's words seemed more resonant: "People who go into dangerous areas take risks," Richard Holbrooke says. "The idea is not to be reckless."
Many who knew Richard Holbrooke came to dinner at Porterhouse after the Time Warner Center premiere in mid-October, including his wives. Journalist David Rohde--Holbrooke had been instrumental in his release when he was arrested secretly near Sarajevo--was quite clear: I would not be here today were it not for Richard Holbrooke. The documentary has some levity: Among his many achievements was a role he played negotiating an ice cream truce on The Colbert Report, with a finale: a stirring rendition with Colbert and Willie Nelson of "On the Road Again."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.