The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Corridors of Power’: A devastating look at genocide and inaction

Dror Moreh’s latest documentary examines the often-disheartening political calculus that goes into decisions about how the U.S. responds to atrocity

President Barack Obama, right, and special adviser Samantha Power in an archival image from “The Corridors of Power.” (National Archives/Showtime)
(3 stars)

There’s a giant cognitive dissonance at the heart of the documentary “The Corridors of Power,” Dror Moreh’s devastating and disheartening examination of genocide since the fall of the Soviet Union and the calculus that goes into the United States’ decision to act — or not. On the one hand, you have the movie’s dry title, evoking the West Wing of the White House, the floor of the United Nations and other suit-filled rooms; the film’s use of such dispassionate chapter headings as “Priorities,” “Legacy” and “Credibility”; and, finally, Moreh’s overreliance on a who’s who of talking heads from the realms of politics, diplomacy, academia and the military: Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Samantha Power, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta and many, many others.

On the other hand, there is the shaky, handheld footage of rotting corpses, executions in broad daylight and naked torture victims that the filmmaker of such shattering works as “The Gatekeepers” and “The Human Factor” has assembled from around the world to break up the monotony of his sit-down chats with power players past and present.

The disconnect is not accidental. Nor is it a flaw. Rather, it is the entire point of the film, which takes the United States’ reputation as the world’s policeman at face value. To be sure, there have been occasions when the conscience of the world is so stirred by outrage that coalitions form and nations come together to act in concert. But when someone somewhere in the world is “mugged,” to use the paltry euphemism of one of Moreh’s subjects, more often than not America is the “cop” you call for assistance.

How do we decide whether to respond? And in what fashion? And for how long? These are the questions Moreh is interested in. But the carefully parsed answers — which explain why Powers titled her Pulitzer-winning 2002 book on genocide “A Problem From Hell” — will make your heart sink. The “right” thing to do, whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Cambodia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Syria, Libya or any of the other places discussed in the film, often creates new problems, not to mention doesn’t even solve the original conundrum.

The central focus of the film is, to use a choice turn of phrase cited by Jake Sullivan, the current national security adviser, an endless “loop of imperfection” that characterizes the question of what to do in the face of affronts to humanity that were supposed to have ended with the Holocaust. (As the late Madeleine Albright puts it, the horrifying regularity of genocide is less like the vaunted new world order than a “new world disorder.”)

In other words, Sullivan suggests, we and our allies are damned if we do something and damned if we do nothing.

The discussions that take place on camera, in tastefully appointed suites, are frank and often offer fascinating insights into these dilemmas. But it is the sharply jarring — and dismayingly repetitive — footage of carnage that will stay with you long after the echoes of the film’s subjects’ words have faded from your mind. Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, leaves viewers with a succinct rhetorical question, the answer to which is, by the end of the film, painfully obvious: “Where does this all end?”

Unrated. At Regal Gallery Place. Contains disturbing thematic material, images and discussion of violence, death, torture and rape. 135 minutes.

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