‘Highwire’ Review: Balancing Canada/US Relations

Doc highlights Chrétien’s levelheadedness during the Bush years

6 mins read

Highwire (Sur la corde raide)
(Canada, 82 min.)
Dir. Claude Guilmain

Living in the shadow of the United States of America, Canadians may often feel, or be likened to, a little sibling. But perhaps living next door to a bully is also a reality that Canadians quietly acknowledge. The situation might be more obvious today with a bigger and louder bully in the sandbox, yet the Canadian-American relationship is a special bond that every Prime Minister must stickhandle.

Claude Guilmain’s timely documentary Highwire examines the delicate balancing act of asserting Canada’s place in the world while respecting its neighbouring ally. The film reflects upon Canada’s decision to decline support for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. While the decision to go to war was not one of George W. Bush’s finer moments, it proved a coup for Jean Chrétien towards the end of his tenure as Prime Minister.

Highwire assembles an impressive roster of talking heads to reflect upon this tense moment. Among the interviews are Chrétien; Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations; Claude Laverdure, retired Canadian ambassador and diplomatic advisor to Chrétien; Edward Goldenberg, Chrétien’s senior political advisor; journalist Chantal Hébert; Dr. Miloud Chennoufi of the Department of Defense Studies at the Canadian Forces Colleges; and other voices. There are no parties to speak on behalf of the Bush administration. Perhaps that’s for the better since they had their chance to write history and bungled it spectacularly.

And while the controversial tale Bush’s plot to invade Iraq has been told many times and in many forms, Highwire is a rare offering of the Canadian perspective on the affair. The doc outlines the early days of the Bush-Chrétien relationship and conveys how that bond changed on the world-altering day of September 11, 2001. Highwire marks the day as a turning point in Bush’s presidency, as virtually all accounts do, and outlines how Bush proved his merits—to an extent—by stepping up his performance. Guilmain and the interviewees also situate the viewer within the change in the atmosphere after 9/11. Chrétien and his fellow commentators reflect on the shift in the USA’s focus from commerce to security.

Highwire also unpacks the finagling used by Bush and his compatriots to exploit post-9/11 paranoia to justify the invasion of Iraq. The familiar story of weapons of mass destruction and the tale about playing the media like puppets both appear again. But there’s a difference between seeing them played as satire in Adam McKay’s Vice and witnessing the story as unfiltered interviews from world leaders who experienced it. The liken it to being just another calculated move by a predatory nation with a history of exploiting unstable times.

The talking heads approach admittedly doesn’t have the same entertainment value as Vice does, but it’s eerie to see how well the stories match. While the occasionally dry interviewees don’t bring the same dramatic gusto as Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Sam Rockwell did in their interpretations of the story, the talking heads embody their decades of diplomatic experience. There are few instances in which voices rise or pulses flicker. The mannered and even-keeled temperament of the speakers is diplomacy in its most Canadian form.

Chrétien’s perspective is particularly compelling as he relates, quite candidly, how Bush didn’t offer convincing evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He outlines his skepticism in permitting the use of Canadian troops to invade a country when the United Nations had yet to sanction the war. And seemed very unlikely to do so given the scant and highly speculative support Bush had for his cause. Chrétien’s account isn’t self-congratulatory. He’s alternatively frank and humble in his interviews with Guilmain—far more forthcoming than most active politicians, yet unafraid to mice words while he choose them carefully.

Highwire marks this moment in which Chrétien stood his ground and preserved Canada’s integrity over American interests. The message of the film is welcome at a time when national unity and the strength of Canada’s leadership are under debate. It offers a portrait of strong leadership and exemplifies the role on the world stage that our nation embodies best: that of the peacekeeper. One could obviously extend the message to the bully south of the border today, but the film leaves audiences reassured that sunny ways will prevail against the USA’s shadow.

Highwire screens in Toronto at Cinéfranco on Nov. 30 with Claude Guilmain in attendance.

Sur la corde raide – (Clip promotionnel) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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