Jim: The James Foley Story begins with clarifying announcement. This film will not feature the infamous footage of James Foley’s murder at the hands of ISIS. It’s the right decision for a whole slew of reasons, not least of which being respect for the dignity of the slain journalist and his bereaved family. It also prevents the cheapening of his legacy. Director Brian Oakes is not interested in sensationalizing Foley’s fate. He deserves credit for that.
Still, the entire point of making this film is to showcase his heroism. Foley was a young man from New Hampshire whose choice to become a combat journalist surprised his family. He was first embedded with American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, in 2011, he went to Libya to cover the ousting of Gaddafi. He was captured by the dictator’s forces and was held in a prison for 44 days. After his release he returned to New Hampshire but eventually went back to the Middle East to cover Syria. He was kidnapped on November 22, 2012, and ended up in the hands of ISIS. He was held prisoner with other Western journalists for nearly two years. The video of his beheading was released on August 19th, 2014.
Jim: The James Foley Story can basically be broken down into two stylistic modes. First is the material regarding the love and respect of his family and friends, who admire him for his work as a journalist. There’s a lot of interview footage taken in bright New Hampshire kitchens, the places where Foley felt most at ease. His parents and siblings talk about his single-minded focus on his work, his colleagues about the risks he would take to get footage of the front line. His incredible optimism is a particular point of fondness. He once raised money for a Syrian hospital to acquire an ambulance, without a second thought for its chances to be hijacked by rebel groups. Much of these biographical sequences are accompanied by non sequitur images, the greatest hits of photojournalism dropped in to underline Oakes’s argument for journalism as a heroic act, despite many of them having nothing to do with Libya or Syria.
The second section takes place in ISIS territory, where he and a number of other Western journalists are held in a dank cell. Everything is dimly lit, including the present-day interview footage with those colleagues of Foley’s who were released. There is also a great deal of reenactment. Oakes includes shots of the bare room with just a single window shedding in some light, overhead shots of the men sitting on the floor, staged scenes of their makeshift Risk game. There is even a fixation on a lucky lighter that Foley didn’t actually have with him. Here the emphasis is not on his journalistic bravery but rather his incredible selflessness. Every one of his cellmates testifies to how generous he was, sharing food and clothes, offering encouragement, always helpful and understanding. Daniel, a Danish journalist who was held by ISIS alongside Foley, refers to him as “pure good.”
Something is missing, however. The subtle narrative arc between these two very different sorts of heroism is elided by the effort to include as much warm feeling as possible. Oakes’s strategy is loving but uncomplicated, an effort to paint a unified portrait of his subject’s sainthood. Yet the way that Foley was heroic does shift over the course of the film, even if it isn’t addressed directly. Foley’s initial capture in Libya was the result of pushing too far. He had what friend and fellow journalist Clare Gillis calls a “macho aggressiveness,” a drive to compete with his colleagues over who could get the closest to the action. Yet there’s nothing aggressive about his inspiring, selfless behavior in the ISIS prison three years later.
Foley began his career as a tall, extremely handsome American white dude with a loving family who could afford to help him through the career crisis that eventually led to journalism. It’s the sort of thing that frequently gives similarly lucky bros a false sense of invincibility. The inspiring thing about Foley’s story is the way his time as a combat journalist changed his perception, not only of the world, but of himself. It’s a personal journey, in a sense, from Matthew VanDyke of Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot to Tim Hetherington. His initial bravery, an oblivious and classically masculine rush into the gunfire, was altered by his experiences into a much smarter, more complex heroism that manifested more in acts of wisdom than in commando-style feats of photography. The front line isn’t really the story, as his journalist friends explain.
But this distinction never really sinks in. Rather than focus on this arc, Oakes builds a narrative of triumphant heroism from start to finish, with a veneer of consistency. At times it feels much more like the biography of a soldier than of a journalist. When it addresses the strangeness of Foley’s time back home, Gillis and others explaining how strange it is to go from a war zone to a Walmart, it presents essentially the same metaphor used by The Hurt Locker. On the one hand, journalists do also experience the thrill of the tumult. An Australian friend of Foley’s even uses the word “fortunate,” that sometimes he gets a sick feeling that he was lucky to be in the midst of this violence. Yet for Oakes it is enough to smooth this over by doubling down on the stated importance of the journalistic mission, in general. Just like American soldiers, journalists are needed in the Middle East, for reasons that don’t really need to be explained.
It’s an unsettling equivalency. This smoothness also gets in the way of asking the most essential questions of 21st century journalism, the sort that Kirsten Johnson poses so effectively in Cameraperson. Should there be an implicit assumption that it’s good for journalists to be in Syria risking their lives? The degree of personal danger for Foley was not the only difference between his time in Libya and his time in Syria. In Libya the presence of journalists and Western attention was, at least from the perspective of the initial rebels, a good thing. Gaddafi’s regime ended. In Syria, that has clearly not been the case. Western journalists were quite welcome at first, but as the violence of Assad’s repression of the rebels continued unabated, things become a bit more strained. The same questions that arose in Bosnia 20 years ago came back, namely whether the constant broadcasting of images from a horrifically violent conflict can actually change anything on the ground.
Oakes does begin to address this, just before he gets to Foley’s kidnapping. Gillis speaks to the issue, explaining that the locals slowly began to weary of all the cameras. People were concerned about reprisals from the regime for the crime of talking to journalists, but there was also a fairly general frustration. Rather than delve into the difficulties of this question, however, Oakes quickly turns to ISIS. As interview subjects discuss the radicalization of the Syrian people, the arrival of Al-Qaeda or something worse, we see the images of Syrians. They do not speak. As we hear that you can never be sure how someone feels, that they might have quietly allied with a terrorist organization, Oakes shows live portraits of Syrian individuals, looking straight into the camera. The impression given by the film isn’t one of nuance, of the troubling journalistic conundrums faced by Foley and others. It’s a provocation of fear, as if the Syrians are slowly succumbing to a mental sickness with no visible signs. It’s ISIS as the zombie apocalypse.
Now, Jim: The James Foley Story is not a documentary about Syria or its long-suffering people. It’s a documentary about James Foley and his family. Perhaps it doesn’t have a moral, or even narrative obligation to pose the difficult journalistic questions that Foley likely had to ask himself. But as a film, or as a work of journalism, it is frustratingly single-minded in its pursuit of heroism over uncertainty. There is no question that Foley deserves to be remembered and honored. The question is whether his story can be used to ask difficult, essential questions about the role of journalism at the same time.
And as it turns out, resisting the posing of questions doesn’t actually prevent your film from having troubling contradictions. It’s notable and a bit tragic that, in spite of the stated commitment to refrain from showing Foley’s horrible death video, Oakes has no problem featuring the image of the corpse of a Syrian child, completely drained of the color of life. Why not treat the images the same way? What’s the distinction between Foley and those to whom he devoted his professional life? The dichotomy between the tasteful homes of New Hampshire and the brutal, darkened rooms of Syria is the film’s most impressive aesthetic choice. It also underlines a frustrating reiteration of an old theme, the shading of an entire nation in darkness. Many journalists went to Syria to deconstruct this impression, to focus on stories of Syrians that didn’t revolve entirely around the same images of violence. As Foley’s friends explain, “the front line is not the story.” Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
This review was originally published on February 5, 2016.