Harrison's Flowers

One of the niggling complaints about The Blair Witch Project's ingenious found-footage concept was that the three filmmakers would not have continued shooting once they were in real danger. But in an image-based culture, the camera often functions as a talisman, giving the illusion of distance and protection from harm, even though the lens is an impractical shield. In Harrison's Flowers, a harrowing and deeply empathetic account of photojournalists in the former Yugoslavia, the camera gets its heroes in and out of trouble, at once goading them through scenes of horrific violence and saving them from certain death in places where life has lost its value. With more than a passing resemblance to The Killing Fields, another half-fiction about journalists exposing civil war and genocide abroad, Flowers has an authentic feeling for its stars' camaraderie (and rivalry), and cares passionately for their role as society's true storytellers. Like her hardened newshounds, co-writer/director Elie Chouraqui seems a little out of sorts when she's not in the field. Her opening scenes employ a clichéd domestic setup to tell the story of a harried professional more committed to his job than his family. David Strathairn plays an award-winning Newsweek photographer who reluctantly accepts one last assignment before retirement: to be among the first journalists to cover the civil unrest in Yugoslavia. After shocking his colleagues back home with evidence of ethnic cleansing, Strathairn goes missing and is presumed dead, though his body is never found and no one can verify his murder. Against her saner judgement, his naïve but determined wife (Andie MacDowell) embarks on a quixotic mission from Graz, Austria, to war-ravaged Vukovar to find him, joining forces with three other photojournalists (Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, and Brendan Gleeson) who risk their lives for their craft. MacDowell's journey into the heart of darkness, littered with roadblocks and snipers and mutilated bodies, recalls Apocalypse Now, but not a moment is colored as absurd or metaphorical. On a sprawling Cinemascope canvas, Chouraqui honors her subjects with bracing, straight-on photorealism, piling up shot upon shot of unspeakable, retina-burning horror. While the premise occasionally stretches credibility—though no more so than Arnold Schwarzenegger bumbling through Colombia in Collateral DamageHarrison's Flowers moves forward on the conviction of its performances. Brody, in particular, shows uncommon sensitivity as a politically committed and temperamental photographer who responds to MacDowell's half-crazed resolution with heartbreaking zeal. At a time when journalism is threatened by celebrity, corporate bean-counters, and soft-news capitulation, they represent a battered idealism that's refreshing and rare, especially in the movies.

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