Crazy times require crazy tactics. And so just because the UN can’t seem to find Bosnia’s most notorious war criminal does not mean that a gonzo journalist shouldn’t track him down for an interview.
Based on a 2002 Esquire Magazine story called What I Did on My Summer Vacation by Scott Anderson, the movie starts off with a snarky advisory: “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.” The snark deepens to anger and outrage but performances of great sensitivity and heart keep it from getting shrill.
Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) is a television war correspondent equally strung out from the madness of war and from the lack of interest in the stories he sends back home. He has spent his entire career living on adrenaline and alcohol, chasing stories all over the world about people trying to wipe each other out. One night during a live broadcast on network television he had a meltdown, and since then he has been relegated to scrambling for freelance piecework for any global television service he can get to pay him enough to cover his bar tab. But the market for his stories is getting smaller and the bar tab is getting larger.
The network anchorman arrives (James Brolin, sleek and satisfied as a Siamese cat), accompanied by his cameraman (Terrence Howard as Duck), formerly Simon’s closest colleague, and Benjamin (“The Squid and the Whale’s” Jesse Eisenberg), a young kid just out of school whose father is a network executive.
The anchorman is there just long enough to do a stand-up in his flak jacket, but Simon persuades Duck to stay and help him find a war criminal called “The Fox” (Ljubomir Kerekes), who ordered the rape and massacre of thousands of Muslims and is now considered a hero by the Serbs. Simon wants the big story that will get his reputation back, and he would also like the $5 million reward. Duck misses the visceral immediacy of war zone reporting. He is a little embarrassed about his in-studio job and is ready for some adventure. And Benjamin wants to prove himself to his boss, his father, and himself.
So they drive off to find The Fox, in a country where war criminals on the UN’s wanted list can safely list their contact information in the phone book because the cops spend more time finding the right kind of donuts than tracking down a copy of the indictment list. And you can get shot at for stiffing a waiter — or just for asking about The Fox.
As with his previous film “The Matador,” writer/director Richard Shepard uses a deadpan tone to tell an outrageous story. He again casts a glamorous leading man as a dissolute and selfish mess, unraveling after years of being around ceaseless brutality. And again he places this character between people who have had the luxury of living in a world of rationality and regular 401(k) deposits on one side and people who will destroy anything or anyone to get what they want %u2013 and enjoy doing so — on the other.
Simon is selfish and untrustworthy, but Gere makes us see that all of that is in service to telling the story of people that the rest of the compassion-fatigued world would prefer to ignore. Howard, one of Hollywood’s most consistently impressive young actors, gives another engaging performance of stunning subtlety and complexity. Eisenberg’s understated off-beat comic timing works well with Gere’s high-strung energy and Howard’s thoughtful integrity, especially in a scene where Benjamin suddenly turns the tables on a reluctant source.
Despite the movie’s opening disclaimer, some people will criticize it for replacing the highly professional real-life journalists with feature film-worthy characters and plot twists. The changes are conventional. The redemptive story of a journalist who drinks too much because he cares too much is a familiar one and the big reveal in the third act is unlikely to be much of a surprise for the audience. But there are important advantages to telling this story as fiction. They can pretend it is not true, a convenient protection against libel suits. And it gets the word out; people will watch stories in movies they will not watch on the news. Most important, if they do it as fiction they can give it the ending that should have happened. As they say, the difference between movies and real life is that real life does not have to make sense. And that is what it takes to make crazy times real to us in a way that the truth cannot convey.
Families who enjoy this film should read the article that inspired it and read up on the status of Bosnian war criminals.