The role of combat journalists is an endlessly complicated and compelling topic, as evidenced by the many films about them. But it’s a hard story to represent in any kind of ethical or political detail. Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, Salvador is the exception—the reporter played by James Woods is an egotistical prick almost until the end, and the film makes a point of criticizing U.S. policy in Central America, along with the messiness of war reporting, as a concept and reality.
Too many reporter-focused films go the romance route, like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Under Fire (1983), as if situating a beautiful couple at the center of a “foreign conflict” (“foreign” to the white, usually U.S., couple, and so, “foreign” to the presumed audience) will give the war footage an “emotional” resonance. As if such footage needs such resonance. What’s typically lost in such romances is the dilemma facing reporters in war—observing and documenting horrors, they must contend with their personal powerlessness and risk, as well as the built-in moral quandary of their jobs.
Elie Chourquai’s first English language film, Harrison’s Flowers, goes at both the war and the romance from a decidedly oblique angle. At film’s opening, you meet the beautiful couple, living in suburban New Jersey. Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsweek photographer Harrison (dour as ever David Strathairn) and his lovely Newsweek editor wife, Sarah (Andie MacDowell), share a marriage that would be ideal if it were not for the demands of work: they adore one another and dote on their kids. Harrison tells his editor (Alun Armstrong) that he wants out of his usual crazy-scary war assignments, because he worries now about his family. The editor convinces him to take One More Assignment, and with that, you know that Harrison is doomed to a terrible fate.
First, some moral-scene-setting: Harrison introduces his friend and fellow photographer Yeager (Elias Koteas) on the night he wins the Pulitzer, and thereupon is accosted in the men’s room by the underpaid, resentful, and coke-snorting photographer Kyle (Adrien Brody). Because he is not affiliated with an organization like Newsweek, Kyle argues self-righteously, he and his ken do the real work of photojournalism, in the literal trenches, beset by every kind of difficulty, and never quite appreciating the terrors all around them. Meanwhile, the “stars” stay in nice hotels and eat decent food, then win all the prizes, which they hardly need in order to secure them a next paycheck. Being a genuinely nice and passionate fellow, Harrison feels badly about this encounter, but also can write it off as an “under-the-influenced” tirade.
Within the film’s structure, however, Kyle’s pique functions a bit like the warning erupting from the fellow on the street at the beginning of Moby Dick. And within minutes, Harrison runs into his own white whale: dutifully heading off to Yugoslavia to cover the civil war (this is late 1991), and promptly disappears. The moment when Sarah learns of his disappearance may be the film’s finest, in that it is truly harrowing, even if it is contrived: she heads in to the office, all chatty and normal—with her coffee in hand and her appointments in mind—and her coworkers all look at her/the camera like she’s in for big trouble. The build up is excruciating, and then her attempt to walk it off and collapse on the office floor, are awful to watch.
Over the next days, Sarah is inconsolable, and while family members gather round to help her and the children put her husband’s memory to rest (there is no body—key point), she hides out in their home office, with a couple of tvs and VCRs, consuming every possible image of the war. Suddenly, she sees it: someone’s back, walking along with a crowd, near a road sign, with a back that looks a lot like Harrison’s. Convinced immediately that this is him, she decides in the middle of the night to leave the kids with relatives and head off to Yugoslavia, in search of Harrison (whose flowers, by the way, the sign of his fragile domestic desires and attachment to his family are kept alive in his greenhouse by his son)
Needless to say, on her arrival in country, she’s traumatized by the horrors she confronts: the war scenes (shot in and near Prague) are brutal, and they are clearly the film’s raison d’etre, exposing the particular cruelties of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and troops. She agrees to ride with a kindly kid on his way to meet his girlfriend, and almost immediately runs into, well, the war. Sniper fire and explosions rock the car, the kid is killed, she’s hit with shrapnel, just enough to mark her pretty cheek for the rest of the film, but not enough to dissuade or stop her in any way. Miraculously, while she’s left for dead by the marauding troops, she’s discovered by some journalists, who take her back to one of their raggeledy-daggeledy press areas, where—again, miraculously—she’s discovered by Kyle and his buddy, Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson, who again gives a remarkable performance, subtle and generous).
Against all sense, they Kyle and Stevenson say okay, they’ll take her to Vukovar, where she’s convinced Harrison is either wounded or waiting for her or both. She and her husband have an unshakable bond, one that MacDowell has been talking up the film on talk shows, as a way of explaining why she took the role. It is indeed a stunning connection, and the men around her repeatedly remark on her devotion to Harrison—how wonderful it would be to have a woman like her, who would risk all, to come find you even when you’re lost in hell. While it’s probably not useful to press the film’s gender inversion of the Orpheus story, it’s hard to ignore: Sarah refuses to look behind, unlike the men with whom she’s traveling, instead, pushing forward into increasingly dangerous situations.
Warned again and again not to venture into Vukovar, Sarah remains resolute, and soon her group is soon joined by Yeager, who finally is so moved by her passion and determination that he drops his own star-reporter affect, and crawls around in the mud with the others. Though the movie clearly means well, it falls back on clichés and improbabilities to complete its narrative. While Sarah is the device to get the film to Yugoslavia, it becomes increasingly clear that the war scenes stand quite apart from the great love that ostensibly drives the film. The outcome for Sarah and Harrison starts to feel slightly irrelevant, compared to the awfulness they observe and endure. This isn’t to say that individual stories are unimportant during wartime, but that the tragedy of the cruelty and violence takes on a life—and death—of its own. Harrison’s Flowers so focused on its romance, never seems to appreciate its own, terrifically important frame.