Friday, January 10, 2014

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here...Movie Review

Director and subject, Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington (right) while making Restrepo.
It’s funny that I was just yesterday writing about the documentary The Crash Reel, which is about an individual drawn to extremely dangerous activities even after that activity nearly kills him, because now I find myself thinking about similar themes in relation to the subject of Sebastian Junger’s Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. It may or may not be coincidence that both films were made by HBO. Hetherington was a photojournalist who specialized in going into war zones. He was Junger’s co-director on the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo. Front Line was made after Tim’s death while covering the rebel uprising in Libya in 2011.

The long and unwieldy title notwithstanding, Junger’s film is brisk and to the point, clocking in at under 90 minutes. This is not a reflection of the fact that Hetherington’s work can’t fill a longer film, but that this is a film about the man and his approach to his work, not the work itself, although many of his photographs (his strongest talent) are on display throughout. Hetherington spent a good deal of time covering the war in Liberia and then, of course, Afghanistan, where he made Restrepo while embedded with a US Marine platoon. After that, he thought he was done with war journalism, but like Kevin Pearce in The Crash Reel, he was continually compelled by the inner workings of his own mind into the danger zone. I’m by no means attempting to equate war journalism with snowboarding, but there appears to be a similar mechanism in the brains of people like Pearce and Hetherington that allows them to overcome fear and that drives them for more and more.

Junger paints a narrative that I don’t find entirely convincing. It’s loaded to the hilt with observations made with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Former colleagues and family members make statements that seem to point to the inevitability of Tim’s death, almost as if they could have predicted it given his personality. Of course knowing now that he died in Libya covering the war affords everyone the opportunity to reexamine seemingly inconsequential and innocuous conversations and events for deeper significance. His father had a “bad feeling” about his son’s going to Libya. His mother, not knowing the fate of her son the day of his death, changed her mind about the purchase of red roses in favor of white ones. Many people believe in things like fat, psychic connections, etc. Others know about coincidence and confirmation bias. Tim himself is shown speaking in Moscow in 2010 about the fact that war correspondents who get killed all tend to be in their 40s because, as he believed, after so many conflicts covered, they become inured to the danger and violence and so take greater risks. Maybe there is something to that or maybe Hetherington just had some terribly bad luck.

His work life and his attitude is interesting enough. Junger paints a portrait of a big human heart whose principal goal is to tell the stories of people and lives affected by war. It just feels unnecessary to add an element that suggests foreshadowing and fate. Hetherington is not a character in a work of fiction from whom life lessons should be gleaned. He was a real, and by all accounts, astounding individual who lost his life in service of something he saw as a higher calling. I believe this documentary was made from a place of love – there’s no denying that. It just should do well enough without the obvious stretch to spin a narrative.

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