The Atrocity Exhibit


The wars of secession in Yugoslavia initially met with international bemusement not least because media and government agencies alike presented the conflicts as an imponderable “ethnic” quagmire, an ancient, hopeless thicket of tribal vendetta. This was hogwash, of course, but it furnished yet another ravaged backdrop for Hollywoodized war tourism: intro civics lessons-cum-survival tales, in which guileless Americans abroad are plunged into swarthy, undifferentiated chaos. After serving as the nominal launching pad for bullying patriotism in December’s idiotic Behind Enemy Lines, the Balkans provide the obstacle course for the love of a good woman in Harrison’s Flowers.

Newsweek photojournalist Harrison (David Strathairn) is on the verge of giving up his trade for the wife and the kids and the greenhouse, but he takes one last assignment, covering the outbreak of civil war in Croatia in late 1991. When Harrison goes missing in besieged Vukovar and is presumed dead, it’s up to his wife, Sarah (Andie MacDowell), to buck protocol and dive headfirst into the powder keg to rescue him. (Just as Behind Enemy Lines recalled the 1995 ordeal of a downed U.S. pilot, Harrison’s Flowers bears a slight accidental resemblance to the Daniel Pearl tragedy.)

Sarah goes with her gut, unencumbered by any apparent connection to her two small children or, indeed, her immediate surroundings—making a rare exit from the den where she obsessively watches TV news day and night, she’s shocked to find family and friends saying kaddish for Harrison. Elie Chouraqui’s film is likewise a discombobulating mix of blood-and-grit docu-realism and moony multiplex contrivance. Once Sarah arrives in Croatia and drives her rental car directly into gunfire, Chouraqui’s harrowing images of smoking, corpse-littered streets would seem ripped from CNN were it not for the puzzling sight of journalists jogging through the flying bullets, shouting the gibberish phrase “Press! Press!” at soldiers.

Two of her husband’s colleagues, establishment prizewinner Elias Koteas and loose-cannon snapper Adrien Brody, aid Sarah’s quest, the latter saddled with delivering the film’s political platform: “No one knows what this country is. . . . There are no bad guys, there are no good guys.” A sentiment worthy of Warren Christopher, perhaps, but the main clash in question—the three-month assault on Vukovar by combined Yugoslav Peoples’ Army forces and Serb paramilitaries—wounded or killed thousands of civilians. The carnage only further sanctifies Sarah, who cradles the dying in her arms or makes remarks like “The children are so beautiful here” when she’s not crawling in camouflage through sniper territory. And yet, as she tears through the local hospital screaming her husband’s name, does it occur to her that the doomed invalids she brushes past might have lovers and children and orchids too? Did it occur to the director?

Covering the period between the Cold War’s end through NATO’s air war in Kosovo in 165 brisk, narration-heavy minutes, Yugoslavia: The Avoidable War claims to sort the bad guys from the good, which is its essential problem. Heedlessly pro-Serbian and anti-interventionist, lovingly fixated on phrases like “Clinton hard-liners” and “ad hoc war-crimes tribunal,” it could make puffy fascists from Slobodan Milosevic to Pat Buchanan weep for joy. Indeed, Slobo has used clips from George Bogdanich’s video doc as evidence for his defense in the Hague—which might be the movie’s chief point of interest.

No side was without sin in the decade-long Balkan catastrophe, but The Avoidable War (as in, the West could have avoided it) makes the breathtaking assertion that Serbia was the perpetual hapless victim, flummoxed on all sides by self-bombing upstart nationalists. (Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic is painted as a radical Islamic warrior in bed with Osama bin Laden.) Bogdanich dismisses the atrocities at Srebrenica and Serb-run prison camps as blindered media exaggerations; mass-rape victims are waved aside via one woman’s inconsistent testimony. Deceptively rich with news footage and State Department talking heads, the film is akin to an overlong Fox News special—to borrow a Nation headline, they distort, they decide.

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