Saturday, July 01, 2017

OVP: Jim: The James Foley Story (2016)

Film: Jim: The James Foley Story (2016)
Director: Brian Oakes
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"The Empty Chair")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Documentaries have always been a major part of the cinematic landscape-they've been a separate category at the Oscars since 1942 (1941 if we count the shorts), but it does feel like in recent years they've moved from being random asides that only the most CINEMATIC of the cinematic-minded see to films that are pretty much headliners at local arthouses.  Honestly-I remember even fifteen years ago a documentary might last in my local Landmark Theatre for a week at best, but now some of them last for over a month.  While we aren't quite in the heyday of the mid-Aughts in terms of blockbuster documentaries (your Michael Moores, your March of the Penguins), through Netflix, HBO, and increasingly stronger presence in independent cinemas, we are in a Golden Age of access to important real-life films.

(Spoilers Ahead) This results in nearly countless upsides, including more filmmakers having their movies viewed by the general public, and more important subjects getting a proper due in the public consciousness.  But I've also found in recent years this occasionally feels like we're in a period similar to "the Golden Age of Television" where everything seems structured roughly the same.  Every "important" documentary about a major, heartbreaking, or topical issue is shown in almost the exact same way.  Frequently you get interviews from people connected to the person or events, a deeply humanizing analysis that shows that all people are complex, and a series of insights like every documentary filmmaker is Terry Gross.  It can occasionally make for riveting testimony, particularly if they're interviewing the actual people involved, but much like Gross's interviews (I like her, but it's impossible not to see certain things coming), it becomes predictable after a while.

As you may have guessed, Jim: The James Foley Story is one of those documentaries that takes a fascinating subject, one that should be easily able to fill a motion picture (a reporter brutally killed by ISIS, and in general a war correspondent in Libya and Syria), and makes it feel like a generic tale.  The movie moves between rather staid looks at his family, and then additionally to some of his fellow journalists, including those who were captured alongside him in Syria.  It feels harsh to say this, and indeed it is a commentary on the film itself and not Foley, a hero who died in an unspeakable and unforgivable way, but the movie frames itself too generically and becomes quite dull after a while.  Even when you feel like it's going to finally find some sort of proud insight into Foley as a person, he remains frantically unknowable; either because he was so introverted that he was a constant enigma or because people didn't want to share a more rounded portrait of him as a human being, Foley himself you leave having little understanding of what drove him, or quite frankly why people become war correspondents on a personal level, rather than just "civic duty."  I left the movie feeling the same way about both Foley and war correspondence in general-it's important, dangerous work, but other than a sense of innate responsibility I don't know what drives someone to risk their lives covering a part of the world few of their fellow countrymen could find on a map.  That the picture leaves you with little more about Foley and his occupation than you would have received from the news coverage of his death in 2014 feels like a missed opportunity for the filmmakers.

The movie received one Academy Award nomination, in this case for Sting and J. Ralph in Best Original Song.  J. Ralph's bizarre history with the Academy Awards, netting three nominations, all for documentaries, is one of my favorite recent Oscar oddities.  For comparison's sake, only seven documentaries total have ever been nominated for Best Song, and J. Ralph has written almost half of them.  I generally tend to like J. Ralph's languid stylings, and coupled with Sting, whose vocals have taken hazy to a whole new level (in a good way) in the latter half of his career, "The Empty Chair" is actually quite moving, and in some ways gets to where the documentary could not.  In a year where we genuinely had a lot of really good songs nominated by Oscar (in my opinion there isn't really a clunker in the bunch, and that's with them skipping worthy contenders from Zootopia and Sing Street), I can't really fault Oscar for picking this tune.

Those are my thoughts on Jim-what about yours?  I know that I'm in the minority when it comes to actually liking the picture (the Rotten Tomatoes score indicates that), so anyone want to argue with me that this is pushing the documentary in some direction we haven't seen before?  Is anyone else finding the documentary format needs to be played with, in the same way that the TV drama format needs to be messed with a bit?  Share your thoughts below!

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