Saturday, September 22, 2007
Movie review: The Hunting Party
Do field correspondents thrive on the frisson of danger? These ones do.
Director/writer Richard Shepard (interviewed here) pulls a bit of a switcheroo on us in The Hunting Party, his cinematic retelling of the story behind journalist Scott Anderson's Esquire magazine memoir, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation": flying in the face of contemporary entertainment trends, he gives us a story in which Muslims are portrayed as victims of ethnic violence rather than terrorist aggressors. (Which, of course, in this case they actually were.) How refreshing for a change.
Also refreshing are the performances of lead actors Terence Howard (as "Duck," a veteran location cameraman who thrives on danger) and Richard Gere (as Simon Hunt, a burnout whose former front-line network correspondent primacy has now devolved to stringer work for third-tier reporting agencies). Mr. Howard's narration of the story employs the familiar cadence and inflection of a trusted confidante in order to draw us into the drama. Mr. Gere, who's of an age to portray world-weariness without undue effort, succeeds in this while simultaneously convincing us that he might still have what it takes to inspire sufficient confidence in an old work partner to propel them both on a hair-brained long-shot journalistic mission.
Said mission results from a chance meeting between Duck and Simon in turn-of-the-21st-century Bosnia after the genocidal events of five years prior have become uncomfortable - if in no way distant - memories. The former news reporting partners haven't kept in touch since their forced network separation in the midst of their coverage of the Bosnian conflict, probably because Simon has become a wandering recluse without a permanent address; he now wants Duck's help in following up a lead on the location of "The Fox," a wanted Serbian nationalist war criminal responsible for thousands of deaths during the war - including one in particular, it turns out, which has earned him the relentless investigative attention of Simon Hunt.
Accompanied by neophyte reporter-internist Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), Duck and Simon head off into the dangerous bandit-infested Serbian highlands on what Simon soon admits is nothing more than a hunch.
The fact that the movie was actually shot in and around Sarajevo lends an eerie verisimilitude to filmed events; we're constantly reminded of the neighborhood's recent violent history by the shell-pocked concrete walls of buildings, including some recognizable from the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Encountered along the way are a U.N. occupying force officer with a greater devotion to donuts than criminal investigation and a sympathetic colonel of the Serbian police who mistakes the rag-tag trio for undercover CIA hit men. Which detail - according to director Shepard - is one of those instances of truth proving to be weirder than fiction.
The three survive a chilling encounter with a group of good-ol'-boy shotgun-wielding Serbs in a backwoods ale house that might as well have been called "The Fox's Lair," and another close call with road agents led by a stature-challenged thug with whom - fortunately - Simon is acquainted. Events culminate when their desperate mission leads to a series of surprisingly successful outcomes.
As a stand-alone entertainment, The Hunting Party - due to its rather rambling narrative progression and the perhaps too-tidy resolution of its central conflict - would rank only moderate approval; but thanks to its "this really happened" backstory and a pair of earnest and affecting performances from its leads, it gains several degrees of skyward-crank on the upward-trending thumb.
POV IS EVERYTHING: "If you're just reporting it, war has its bright side." - Duck
CONSIDER THE SOURCE: "You're not making any sense now." - Duck to UN officer
"I know - I'm the United Nations." - UN officer's reply