Well-intentioned, timely drama. A photojournalist (Keener) struggles to regain her footing after a traumatic assignment in Libya, but it takes way too long to figure out who she is, where she is, & how she finds herself in her current predicament.
Film asks critical questions, but the filmmakers fail to fully utilize their enormously talented cast members. (JLH: 3.5/5)
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The Film Critic’s Dilemma: Really, really wanting to like something, but knowing in your heart that you just don’t 🙁
War Story is a well-intentioned and very timely drama directed by Mark Johnson, based on a screenplay he wrote with Kristen Gore. (Yes, that Kristen Gore—daughter of Al & Tipper.)
The main character is a photographer named “Lee” (Catherine Keener), but when we first see her, Lee is an object for other photographers rather than a subject who is taking pictures of her own. Lee is hustled out of a building that looks vaguely Middle Eastern and pushed into a waiting car while flashing cameras snap at her like piranha fish.
As I said, timely, but alas, to say that War Story is “oblique” is to damn with faint praise. I thought it was my fault. I thought maybe I had been preoccupied and just hadn’t paid enough attention. So I watched the whole film a second time on VOD (with the captions turned on so I could see all the dialogue), and then I even watched the beginning a third time so I could be sure of all the parallels between the first scene and the last scene. But even so, the screenplay fails to provide answers and leaves us in a muddle.
For example, where is this film set? After the intro described above, Lee arrives at a place that seems filled with people who speak Italian, but where? At the end, when the credits roll, the copyright says “Sicily Film,” so presumably War Story is set in Sicily. But why? Why does Lee go all by herself to this particular place?
Even though she has no reservation, Lee checks in to a small hotel where it seems she has stayed before, but why? Only in Act Three do we learn that she knows someone in this town, and his reputation is presumably enough to assure that people will treat her well no matter how abominably she treats them. (On a trip to the local hospital, Lee is very rude to a male doctor there who knows her and is trying to help her, so she’s not exactly sexist. But that said, the way she treated women such as the desk clerk and the housekeeper at the hotel made me cringe.)
Lee spends an indeterminate amount of time alone in her hotel room, sleeping with shades down in the daytime and periodically examining mysterious wounds on her back in the glare of the bathroom mirror. Her cell phone rings repeatedly, but she never answers it, nor does she make any outgoing calls of her own.
Finally she gets dressed and heads outside, which is when the plot, such as it is, gets going. Lee sees a young woman on the street and stalks her. When the woman turns on her, Lee says she knows her from a prior assignment. The woman says no, Lee doesn’t know her, but at least the dialogue between them provides us with a bit of information.
“Hafsia” (Hafsia Herzi) tells Lee she is from Libya. She left on an illegal boat with her brother, but somewhere in the night, he vanished. The survivors made it to shore, but there is no welcome for them in Sicily. Lee agrees to help Hafsia get to France. To accomplish this, Lee needs a car, and that’s when we meet “Albert” (Ben Kingsley) the person who actually lives in this place and owns the car Lee intends to borrow. And thankfully the dialogue between Lee and Albert provides us with a bit more information.
Lee is a photojournalist. Albert is her mentor. Lee was on assignment in Libya with her partner, Mark. They were captured. Lee was tortured. Mark was murdered. Lee has survivor guilt. Lee has post-traumatic stress disorder. Lee has big decisions to make about her future. Albert is cold, practical, and uncompromising: This is what we do, and this is the price we pay.
As I write, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and big chunks of Africa are exploding in flames, and refugees like Hafsia are desperately seeing shelter all around the world.
Where would “social media” be without all the pictures we’re forever sending off to one another? But does that mean we need professional journalists committed to covering each story objectively even if, in doing so, they sometimes risk their own lives in pursuit of the facts? Maybe it’s enough to have unvetted “citizen journalists” on the scene who can upload photos from their phones directly to their blogs? Unfortunately, there only seems to be one third option: out of sight/out of mind.
These are critical questions and kudos to War Story for implicitly asking them. I just wish the filmmakers had done a better job of utilizing their cast’s enormous talents. An incessantly moaning cello is no substitute for back story.
Top Photo: “Lee” (Catherine Keener) on the streets of an unnamed place in Sicily.
Middle Photo: Lee with her mentor “Albert” (Ben Kingsley).
Bottom Photo: Lee with “Hafsia” (Hafsia Herzi), who becomes something of a surrogate daughter in the course of the film.
Photo Credits: No photographer is named on IMDb.
PS: Shout-Out to someone named “Beavertoof” with whom I exchanged several illuminating messages on IMDb. Thanks, Beavertoof 🙂 But note that this thread contains multiple spoiler alerts!
Absolutely! The film rests primarily on conversations between Lee and Hafsia. Their slowly-developing relationship grows as they come to trust one another and recount past experiences. By the time they leave the hotel together, they have achieved something of a mother/daughter vibe, which adds emotional heft to their parting scene.