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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jim: The James Foley Story

In my dogged pursuit to see all films that receive Academy Award nominations, I turn to Jim: The James Foley Story, a not very creatively-titled documentary about, well, James Foley, the journalist who was executed by ISIS. It is an HBO film by Brian Oakes that must have had a screening somewhere, because it got nominated for Best Song ("The Empty Chair," by Sting and J. Ralph).

When reviewing a documentary, especially one about such an emotional subject, it becomes easy to review the subject and not the quality of the film. Let me make it plain: James Foley, by all accounts, was a brave and good man. He was captured by rebels twice--one in Libya, where he was released, and once in Syria, where he was not. But this film edges into hagiography. Basically, it's nearly a two-hour valentine to the man, who everybody loved.

Oakes uses mostly the talking head method, interviewing family, friends, co-workers, and most interestingly, fellow hostages in Syria who made it out. No one has a bad thing to say about him, except maybe his brother, who says Jim wasn't much for financial responsibility. But what does come across, though nobody says it in so many words, is that he was addicted to danger. Exactly who, after being captured in one country, decides to go back to the front? James Foley.

The film also presents interesting notions about the state of journalism today. With newspapers in decline, most war correspondents are freelancers. Foley worked for a web site, but as a freelancer, so it's likely these guys didn't have health insurance and god knows how they paid for their trips. I would have liked to more about that. There are two women interviewed who were on the front lines with Foley--what was it like for them? At no time is anyone interviewed who identifies as a girlfriend of Foley's--did he have a personal life?

This film was made with full cooperation of the Foley family, you can tell. They even, in their answers, refer to "Brian" by name. So while this film has interest, it doesn't take a very tough stand or go more deeply into the psychology of why people are drawn to conflict. And the song is pretty good.

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