Can you tell me a little about your father’s career and what motivated you to make the film “The Diplomat?”
He served five different democratic presidents. When he landed in Vietnam in May of 1963, John F. Kennedy was president, and my father later found about the tragic assassination on an airstrip in the Mekong Delta. I have pictures of him with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House at age 24. He was the youngest Assistant Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. He worked for Bill Clinton where he achieved his biggest accomplishments, and was also the highest up in his career, and then he worked for President Obama. I think the scope of history and the career where he was at the front seat of the negotiating table for decades makes him interesting in and of itself, other than the fact that he is my father, which adds a whole different layer of interest. Obviously I knew what he had accomplished and I had paid attention to his career while reading about him and talking to him some, but he was never a very easy person to talk to about what he had accomplished or what was going on with work. I think he had to be discreet to a point, but I think also he just wanted to talk to people who were experts about his work, and I certainly wasn’t. When he died, I realized there was a film to be made and there was a lot to be said about him that really I could uniquely say. It was important how I could tell my story that no one else really knows. I also knew that I would have access to people who might not talk to other filmmakers about him, and I wanted to have the world really understand him in a way that is both public and historical but also private and personal. I wanted to get a sense of what really drove him- this film was going to be my story of his life.
Do you think the nature of your father being in the public eye affected your childhood as you were growing up?
It certainly had an impact. I was conceived in Vietnam, born in Bangkok, I lived in Paris during the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that attempted to end the Vietnam War. Our lives, to a point, followed my father’s career- to Princeton for a fellowship or to Morocco for him to run the Peace Corps there. We came to Washington D.C. where my parents eventually split, and my father would do these crazy things with us. For his last trip for the government in the Carter administration when he was Assistant Secretary of State, he took me back to Thailand, the place of my birth. I remember meeting the Queen of Thailand and I met the last three democratic presidents that he served. It was an unusual life, and he was such at a level that we didn’t go with him often, but when we did, you would look around and say “wow this is really a crazy place to be”. It was always like that in that he was so ambitious that his family had to be pulled along in his wake or not be there at all. That was just how it was. It was not a bad thing. It was exciting, and I think most of all, there are a lot of absent fathers, but a lot of them are at the bar or doing whatever, but my father was doing something of substance. Despite all of this, he could have still been a better father, but he was doing good work.
How much did you feel that absence growing up?
Completely. But I think I also understood it. It was harder to understand when I was younger and a teenager trying to figure out what this world is about, but I just kind of dealt with it. I talked about it in the film with Diane Sawyer when she asked if I was angry. I think I was angry to a point, but then I accepted that this was the life. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t frustrations and there weren’t issues, but it became more of a thing for me when I became a father and I had kids of my own. He simply didn’t understand how cool my children were and he didn’t really understand what it meant to me. At the same time, he was proud of them and he was proud of me, but fatherhood didn’t come easy to him like a lot of things did. His intellect was so formidable and his intellect was so significant that I think parts of him weren’t as pressing. If that meant that he could end in the Bosnia or some other war, that’s a small price to pay. He saw me with my kids at one point, looked at me kind of with wonder and said, “how do you do that?” to which I responded “you just show up and you do things.” He didn’t really understand that, in the same way that I don’t think that I could have gone and figured out a treaty the same way that he did.
While making the movie, is there anything you discovered about your father that you wish you hadn’t found out?
There were letters to my mother that don’t paint him in a particularly flattering picture. At that point, he’s a difficult suitor. Later, he’s a difficult husband, and you see that in the film. He says “I’m not going to be there; I’m not that kind of guy.” He was both hopelessly unaware of himself and at the same time, understood himself well. It was hard seeing those letters, and then there were some that I didn’t see because my producer thought I shouldn’t see them. Professionally, he made a lot of mistakes, especially in his last act in the Obama Administration. You should understand that as I said in the film, I went to Afghanistan five years after his death with my eldest daughter to understand what went wrong on his last mission. I wasn’t the first to report that there had been issues between him and the President, but I think that I explored these issues more deeply and more effectively than most, just by the nature of the documentary. One of the things that I knew before but recertified in the process is that great men and great women have great flaws, and sometimes their flaws are as big as their achievements. I don’t think that my father is much different in that regard. He had an incredible amount of hubris and arrogance, but he also cared deeply and was fierce in getting the job done. The irony is that especially in the Obama Administration, my father became his worst enemy because he didn’t know how to tailor his approach to the Obama Administration. Had he been able to figure that out, I think it might have been a very different story.
If there were one thing that you could tell your father today, what would it be?
I would ask about how to bring the Dayton Agreement and accords that ended the Bosnian War into the 21st century. I know it’s a strange sudden son-to-father question instead of something like “do you have any regrets?” or “don’t you wish you came to my basketball games?” I think that his wisdom and perspective were unique, and that he brought sensibility and a sense of the overall landscape that nobody else did. I would really want to hear his thoughts because twenty years after the war ended, Bosnia isn’t a good place to be. Thankfully, Karadžić was just convicted, but another Serbian war criminal was just pardoned by The Hague, which is appalling.
So you would ask him for advice, rather than have a fatherly conversation?
I would. I would want to ask “can you tell me what you learned for life?” He was at his best in the synthesis of understanding incredibly complex geopolitical problems. I’m an amateur; I’m a filmmaker who dabbled in foreign policy for a few years while making the film, but I don’t claim to be an expert. However, I’ve been to these places and I’ve spent a lot of time with very smart people trying to tell his story, and I think that there’s real symbolism in that Afghanistan, a country he tried to help, is the second largest source of refugees behind Syria, and those refugees are flowing right through Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Croatia. He was the son of refugees himself and really cared about that. Climate change is the world’s biggest issue, and it’s no coincidence that the Syrian exodus was preceded by four years of drought. The refugee crisis is due to a lot of factors, but climate change is going to exacerbate everything. I think my father’s vision on how handle these crises would have been different and would have had an ameliorative effect of everything. Given all the saber-rattling in the issues, this is something that he really could have helped with. There should be something kinder and warmer to answer this, but he wouldn’t have wanted to talk with me about things like that. I know so much more now, having spent so much time with people who knew him, so I’d want to know what he thought about today’s issues.
How did the film’s personal subject shape how you approach making it?
I’m told a lot by people when they watch the film that it is critical of him in places, both as a father and as a diplomat. You can see his missteps in the Obama Administration and other things he did wrong, and still people say to me “your film is so objective.” I always object to this objectivity because in reality, it wasn’t. The film was very much made with the subjective perspective of his son. From the beginning, I said that I wanted the film to be loving but honest. I like to think of myself not as objective, but as open-eyed to his strengths and foibles, and there were many on both sides. He was an extraordinary man, and what he achieved was remarkable. There were many things that didn’t make it into the film, such as the normalization of relations with Vietnam, opening up China, and relations with the Philippines. There were so many places where he had an impact. Many of the people who worked with him and saw the film would remark how the film didn’t talk about many things, which I understand. In the end I had to look at the film like a true story that had to be told with a beginning, middle, and an end. I realized early on that I was going to structure it around Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. His ambassadorship to the UN, which was his highest position in the government, got only about a minute and a half in the film, despite that he accomplished a lot there. He lowered the US dues to the UN with Jesse Helms, the Security Council talked for this first time about AIDS, and other very real accomplishments. He also had a very tortured confirmation hearing, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that, so it isn’t in the film. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been in a longer film, but documentaries should be in the 90 minute-range, and this was already 103 minutes so I had to make some tough decisions. I could have easily made a trilogy- a Diplomat of the Rings– focusing on those three parts and extrapolating from there, but ultimately you need to be ruthless when you make a film. It was difficult to take a giant story that simultaneously unfolds over five decades of American foreign policy while being a father-son story and make it into a movie.
What advice would you give to the families of aspiring diplomats as they begin their journeys?
I would say to them that this work matters in a very real and a very big way. It doesn’t mean that your diplomat mother or father can abandon you, but it does mean that you have to give them a little extra latitude and understand that the work is incredibly important and challenging. One of the things I learned from making the film not just about myself or my father is about the art of diplomacy and just how hard it is- how many things have to go right and how many things can easily derail a negotiation. When you’re frustrated that your parent has to be in Vienna for another week because they’re negotiating the Iran deal, so be it. I don’t think this condones complete absences, and my father took it too far. He wasn’t a good father, but he was damn good at being a diplomat, and I think that he should be someone that diplomats aspire to be. I made the film for three reasons: I felt my father had something more to say, I felt my kids needed to understand who their absent and sometimes distant grandfather was, and I wanted to inspire the next generation of diplomats. At the end of the credits, it says “dedicated to the next generation of diplomats,” which is a very important line in the film. Diplomats of all ages have told me how inspiring the film is, especially older diplomats seeing their profession on HBO, the network of Game of Thrones. Younger diplomats look to my father and say “I want to be like that guy.” What he did wasn’t easy, but it’s impressive, and I think that admiration runs deep for him, as it should. As a speaker said in the film, there was no other diplomat or political figure that could have brought an end to the Bosnian War. 500 civilians being killed a month in Sarajevo alone, and a brutality that hasn’t come close to being seen in Europe since, and it’s remarkable to think he ended that. I hope that young diplomats look to him and learn what he did right and what he did wrong.