Salving Your Conscience
“Should I stay or should I go?” It’s “London, 1984,” and a vivacious, begowned, and frivolous Sarah (Angelina Jolie) is dancing to a Clash cover, not yet knowing that this lyric will become the question of her life. While at this benefit ball with her British husband Henry (Linus Roache), she first lays eyes on Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), who crashes the swanky benefit ball with a crew of fellow white aid workers and a tiny Ethiopian child called Jo-Jo.
Sarah watches, rapt, as Nick accuses the ball’s patron of withdrawing funds from his non-profit relief agency (a non-government organization, or NGO), currently struggling to save lives in famine-ravaged Ethiopia. Nick’s performance is only amplified when one of the guests tosses a banana at Jo-Jo. Nick goes on to use this vile and blatantly racist gesture to showcase his own sensitivity and self-consciousness, inviting Jo-Jo to play “monkey” for the audience, just as the cops bust in and drag off all the protestors, including young Jo-Jo, who, ripped from Nick’s presumably caring arms, meets a terrible fate.
The scene inspires Sarah to do a right thing, that is, leave her comfy urban environs for the deserts of Ethiopia, bearing truckloads of food (“Don’t go running off to some hole in Africa just to salve your conscience, warns Henry, “It’s not the most grownup thing to do”). But it also lays out the many problems in Beyond Borders, a well-meaning but often tactless “romance.” Set against “the backdrop of the world’s most dangerous hot spots” (this according to the press notes), Martin Campbell’s movie posits white aid workers, circa 1984 to ‘95, hopping from horror to horror, in Ethiopia, Cambodia (during Pol Pot’s genocidal campaign), and at last Chechnya (these locations approximated by Namibia, Thailand, Montreal, and Quebec Provence).
As they endeavor to save “third world” victims of famine, war, disease, displacement, and drought, the workers run up against local governments, gangs, and guerillas, as well as the CIA; desperate for money, Nick collaborates with this odious agency, embodied by the snotty and frankly vicious Steiger (Yorick Van Wageningen), in a weapons-running scheme. The plot point leads to a couple of “action” type scenes (and understandably bothers real life NGO workers, who protest that such depiction impairs their efforts to organize legitimate funding). Nick’s brief interactions with indigenous activists in each spot hardly quells the film’s celebratory image of noble whites doing noble work, as victims appear unable to save themselves; this only supports a familiar imperial fiction. (Tellingly and predictably, the film does not mention disasters effected by U.S. or U.K. activities.)
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t underline the fact of ongoing devastations around the world, or that the determined workers don’t also learn something about their own limits as they struggle against mostly human-made iniquity. But such background—children with caved-in chests, a baby playing with a grenade handed him by the Khmer Rouge—also make the supposed sweep of the love story looks increasingly silly, as it draws toward a climax that might be most charitably described as “extravagant.”
Sarah’s Ethiopian adventures include getting educated by her female truck driver (“Death is everywhere”), wearing pristine white outfits, and cradling a starving child as his mother lays dying nearby. This child, according to the press notes, is not as emaciated as he looks—rather, the “issue was handled with great sensitivity,” sparing you from seeing an actual body by digitizing a “healthy child” to look cadaverous, with the CGI obvious enough to be distracting. This process raises questions as to “truth,” not essential in a fiction film, but also as to what’s at stake in seeing trauma and tragedy, for whom. Sarah, the hyperfictional character, is suitably horrified by the spectacle, and after much pressing, convinces Nick to help her try to save the child; this even though he tells her, at first, that his triage procedure disallows his tending to a child so apparently far gone. (While this dramatic conflict between the white folks ignites their romance, Nick’s stunning refusal to care for young Tula reportedly runs counter to relief workers’ usual practice.)
By the time Sarah leaves the camp, she’s fallen hard for dashing Nick and bonded with his partner, Elliott (Noah Emmerich), who is specifically denoted as Buddhist and who sets her up to work for London’s UNHCR office (United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the very agency that appointed Jolie Goodwill Ambassador in 2001, emerging from her research for this movie and becoming something of a mission for the actor, who has famously adopted a Cambodian child, abandoned her own Hollywood excesses, including Billy Bob Thornton, and been celibate for a year.) Her work is surely compelling, as is Nick’s, but the movie uses their interests as ways to symbolize their repressed and mutual passion for one another—as if they can’t carry on their efforts are not dramatic enough in themselves.
So moved is Sarah by Nick’s passion (he admits here that he erred by bringing Jo-Jo to London) that even as she has an adorable son back home with her dreary, jobless, and conveniently unfaithful husband, she finds herself thinking of Nick every day while working at the London UNHCR office. She finds the means and time to see Nick when the story arc demands, and so she travels to Cambodia, where she witnesses Khmer Rouge atrocities. She undertakes a final trip to Chechnya when she learns that Nick has disappeared. Using extremely expedient connections assembled by her reporter sister Charlotte (Teri Polo), Sarah follows Nick to the snowy wilds. Here, much like Andie MacDowell’s Sarah in Harrison’s Flowers (2000), this Sarah braves resident commanders, trigger-happy militants, and landmines to seek out her man.
And this is, ultimately, the film’s most egregious tragedy. For all its obvious investment in showing the terrible truths of global catastrophes, displaced peoples and refugees, and terrible vicissitudes of war, Beyond Borders is stuck within the exceedingly familiar borders of Sarah’s drama. As her voiceover asks, “I wonder, do we all know where we belong?” Even as she finds her place, Beyond Borders can’t really get at the more pressing question: Who is this “we” it represents?