One of Our Journalists Is Missing
World-premičring in competition at Sundance and HBO broadcast two weeks afterwards, Jim: The James Foley Story images the moments of what should be an end of innocence. Now each day brings new, once-unthinkable atrocities committed in an expanding list of places by an expanding list of groups at war or in grievance. What first really put the fear of (whatever) god in Americans and brought it all home, was the widely disseminated 2014 video beheading of photojournalist James Wright Foley.
Black-clad and -hooded executioner of orange-jumpsuited Jim Foley and at least six others, Mohammed Emwazi who took the name Abu Muharib al-Muhajir but was media-dubbed “Jihadi John,” was killed in an airstrike two months ago. But now against soft targets “seemingly random killings intended to sow fear” and “kidnapping for ransom [or] politically motivated abductions are so common” that there is a danger of desensitizing as much as of panicky overreaction. Done by Brian Oakes, a lifelong friend of its subject, this two-hour documentary is a reminder and memorial of a name since joined by others of intentionally or collaterally martyred multinational freelance journalists who have filled the gap left by media corporations’ withdrawal from zones of danger (and expense).
The director makes extensive use of insider’s interviews with parents Diane and John Foley in New Hampshire and siblings elsewhere; with media personnel who had worked alongside him; and with several journalists who had been abducted, imprisoned and brutalized with Jim but unlike him released (some countries pay ransoms or exchange prisoners). Visualization re-creations of the latters’ accounts are necessary and necessarily shadowy, but they do go on too much.
These frequent headshots are intercalated with war-zone footage, a good deal of it shot by Jim himself, giving a sense of intimacy and loss beyond mere as-told-to second-hand accounts. Aside from unanswerable questions regarding the abductors and their goals, the on-the-spot coverage conveys some idea -- a full one is impossible -- of the cost in human terms to civilian populations agonized in distant internecine bloodbaths.
One aspect of Jim and others’ risking life, limb and sanity in conflicts that few care about so long as they stay away, and doing so for little financial reward, is Why they do it. Jim had been captured before, in Libya, but lived to tell the tale at alma mater Marquette University. He then went back, to be taken again, this time in Syria.
Those who remonstrated against such a return, even army brother John, Jr., tried to understand but, like he himself, also asked Why? Part of it, though not brought in, surely is the adrenalin rush, the old blood addiction to war, despite their realization that, once embraced amidst chaos, reporters are currently viewed with suspicion and are unsupported and easily targeted. Handsome and intelligent, however, Jim and his comrades also voice a conviction of the importance of informing the outside, of bringing the reality of local suffering to a world which, even with viral social media, otherwise would not know. (Veteran correspondent J.D. Harris wrote years back that that outside soon forgets, while Dylan had already caustically sung that he never did plan to go anyway to Black Diamond Bay.)
Initially no one claimed responsibility for Jim’s Thanksgiving Day kidnapping. When untraceable email contact was at last initiated, the senders warned against notifying Washington but demanded impossibilities of the release of Muslim U.S. prisoners or payment of a hundred-million-euro ransom. There are inevitable guilt feelings among interviewees, what they did or failed to do, though his parents have concluded that our government was not honest with them and in any case tried too little too late.
The several Whys? asked are not, arguably cannot be, answered. The death of this one man and those of legions of others nameless or celebrated or forgotten, are immemorial though always unacceptable. For, Mankind, the bell tolls for thee.
(Released by HBO Documentary Films; not rated by MPAA.)