Behind desktop monitors and cellphone screens, an untold number of people have watched James Foley die.
Foley, a freelance journalist, was the first American citizen killed by ISIS. ISIS, however, is hardly mentioned in the film, and intentionally so. This is not their story; this story of James Foley, and his end does not define him. Accordingly, the documentary informs you upfront that it will not be showing the clip of Jim’s death.
The film can be roughly divided into two sections: before and after Jim was captured by a Syrian gang in 2012. The First half follows Jim’s work as a photojournalist in Libya and Syria, and is punctuated by heart-wrenching interviews with Foley’s family, friends, and colleagues. The second half is mainly devoted to the time he spent in captivity (approximately two years) before his tragic execution. This section focuses on interviews with some Jim’s fellow captives, and includes a dramatic recreation that serves as a subtle backdrop for the interviews.
One of the highlights of the film was its excellent use of archival footage and pictures, though sometimes it is unclear whether or not it is Jim’s footage we are seeing. Through this footage, we are provided with a harrowing glimpse of war-torn cities in Libya and Syria; buildings are leveled, children are maimed or worse, and hospitals, unable to keep up with the carnage, are overflowing with the wounded. In one particularly chilling example, a young Syrian girl is singing into the camera when a bomb unexpectedly explodes in the vicinity, plunging the quiet street corner into chaos. While this imagery is often hard to watch, Jim gave his life to show the world the horrors of war, and the film is committed to honoring his sacrifice.
In the second half of the film, fellow captive Daniel Ottosen, a Danish photojournalist who was perhaps the closest to Jim, shines as the section’s main interviewee. Noting the strangeness of the ritual, Ottosen mentions that he and Jim used to give each other massages to pass the time. When imagining the nightmare of Jim’s situation, we likely think of the boredom, torture, and lack of food that he and all of the other prisoners were forced to endure; however, we overlook the importance of another person’s touch. Ottensen, who was released just before Jim’s death, memorized a message from Jim to his family. At the end of the film, Jim’s final letter is read and it builds to an emotional climax that will stir up feelings in even the most reserved of people.
The film’s greatest success is in making you feel a personal connection to Jim. While it is impossible to truly know a person in all of his or her complexity, much less one whom you have only been exposed to through a two-hour movie, the film’s tear-jerking interviews will leave you with a basic understanding of the character Jim possessed, which effectively makes his death that much more haunting.
As I am sure you can imagine, the film is quite emotional. One of the saddest moments comes when Jim’s brother Michael reveals that he watched the video of Jim’s death in order to imagine what Jim felt in his final moments. It does not get much heavier than this. ‘Jim: The James Foley Story’ is ultimately an excellently made documentary that celebrates the life of Jim, though the subject matter may not be for everyone.
The doc premiered on HBO.
Photo courtesy of Youtube