Like a Sidewinder missile, Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo" creeps up on you when you're least expecting it. Seen through the eyes of a cool British war journo who becomes emotionally attached to his subject, this multilayered portrait of a city that miraculously keeps going, even with both hands tied behind its back, hits a whole range of emotional buttons and is certain to provoke debate on all levels.

Like a Sidewinder missile, Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo” creeps up on you when you’re least expecting it. Seen through the eyes of a cool British war journo who becomes emotionally attached to his subject, this multilayered portrait of a city that miraculously keeps going, even with both hands tied behind its back, hits a whole range of emotional buttons and is certain to provoke debate on all levels. The heavily pre-sold pic, with an international cast, looks to do warm but not explosive business, with critical reaction in individual territories playing a major role in its reception.

Auds expecting an Oliver Stone-like treatment of the subject, with political and emotional levers cranked up throughout, may initially be disappointed by the pic’s apparent reserve and scattershot approach. Based on the chronicled experiences of ITN reporter Michael Nicholson, this is clearly a movie by British filmmakers, in which much is left unsaid and unshown rather than ladled across the screen in large helpings. Coming from the director-writer team that made the lesbian serial-killer dramedy “Butterfly Kiss,” pic was never likely to be a straightforward take on one of the ’90s’ most emotive trouble spots.

In fact, the earlier Winterbottom movie that most closely parallels this is “Go Now,” a 1995 BBC telepic (starring Robert Carlyle) about a multiple sclerosis sufferer that redefined the disease-of-the-week genre with its sparky, noncorrect approach, and by making the disease itself the third party in a central love story. In “Sarajevo,” the city itself is an active participant in the drama, and it’s the revival of its communal soul that pic celebrates at the end.

Tone is set from the beginning with a main title in gaudy colors, backed by jaunty music, followed by preparations for a local wedding in which a sniper’s bullet suddenly reshapes a family’s life in the blink of an eye. In the ensuing chaos, the main characters are intro’d in casual fashion, already veterans of a situation in which the audience is the newest member.

On the periphery are Flynn (Woody Harrelson), a spaced-out U.S. TV journalist who’s more famous than the news he’s covering, and Annie (Emily Lloyd), a freelancer covering her first war. At the center is hot-spot hotshot Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) and his team: cameraman Gregg (James Nesbitt), producer Jane (Kiwi actress Kerry Fox) and their local driver, Risto (Croat actor Goran Visnjic). It’s 1992, and the cosmopolitan, multiethnic resort city of Sarajevo has entered its worst nightmare as Bosnian Serbs try to derail Bosnia’s new independence by artillery bombing from the surrounding hills and sniper activity within the city.

In an early sequence that throws the spotlight on Henderson, he and Gregg become lost in side streets during the chaos, and Henderson sees (or dreams) an altar boy on the run. It’s a typically unsettling Winterbottom touch that catches the viewer off guard but also lays the groundwork for Henderson’s emotional vulnerability.

That’s soon to emerge as, in the course of a routine news hunt to fill airtime, Henderson and company happen on an orphanage run by a devoted woman (Gordana Gadzic) near the front lines. Already sensing war fatigue back in London (where their coverage of a bread-line massacre was bumped from the top spot by the marital shenanigans of royals Prince Andrew and Fergie), Henderson becomes obsessed with the story of the orphanage. As a reporter, he also sees it as a convenient way to keep Sarajevo regularly on TV screens rather than relying on unpredictable daily news.

Such is Henderson’s involvement in the kids’ plight that he makes plans to take one of the children, Emira (Emira Nusevic), illegally back to England, with the help of an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei) — a cross-country odyssey past patrols of Serbian paramilitary that turns into a horrifying nail-biter. But with Emira finally in the bosom of his family back in comfy, middle-class Blighty, Henderson’s real identification with Sarajevo has only just begun, and requires another trip back to the city to face the consequences of his action.

Treating a historical event that’s still fresh in international memory, Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce were clearly walking on eggshells from the very beginning of the project. And with the war-journo genre so well mined, the challenge to come up with a fresh approach must have been daunting.

Where the pic mostly treads water is in the sequences of journalists congregating at their hotel for ethical conversations. Though the approach is refreshingly offhand, the dialogue is undistinguished and breaks no new ground.

It’s in Winterbottom’s helming and montage that the movie scores — from its casual, unexpected violence, in which lives are shattered in a matter of seconds, to the docu-like approach to everyday horror (moving back and forth between film and video) and the blackly humorous, anti-establishment treatment of everyone from politicians to the UN. (The UN’s pompous pronouncement that Sarajevo is only the 14th most dangerous place on Earth becomes a running joke among the participants.)

The film’s persistent skimming from one vantage point to another, with no dominant dramatic line until midway through, will unsettle audiences expecting a more regular construction and something on which to hook their emotions over the long term. But the movie unquestionably delivers in its final half-hour, and especially during Henderson’s return to Sarajevo, where the Brit’s liberal well-meaning meets Bosnian pragmatism to powerful emotional effect.

Dillane, whose credits are mostly in legit and TV to date (and who replaced original choice Jeremy Irons), brings a dry, English sensibility to Henderson that will strike some as over-cool; but the perf is both remarkably true to the real-life Nicholson’s screen persona and in tune with the filmers’ reserved stance. Harrelson, in a flamboyant but relatively small role, initially seems out-of-kilter with the movie, but gains layers of depth as pic progresses — notably in scenes following his return from discovering Serbian concentration camps.

As with Harrelson, none of the rest of the cast ever dominates the movie to the detriment of the setting and city itself. Lloyd’s rookie war reporter is almost a throwaway, Tomei and Fox slip easily into the clothes of the cause-driven aid worker and hard-bitten producer, and Nesbitt is particularly good as Henderson’s sidekick. In smaller roles, Juliet Aubrey (from “Go Now”) is solid as Henderson’s wife, and Nusevic, a 10-year-old Sarajevan, is remarkable in her transformation from raggedy orphan to poised evacuee.

On the tech side, Welsh TV lenser Daf Hobson brings an almost docudrama urgency to the pic without forgetting the widescreen opportunities, and Trevor Waite’s cutting is pinpoint throughout. The antsy music track, mixing everything from Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones to Adrian Johnston’s emotive original music and Remo Jaziotto’s reworking of Albinoni’s Adagio, is practically a separate construct in itself.

The $9 million film, which also used locations in Croatia and Macedonia, shot in the summer of 1996, only a few months after the January cease-fire. Production ironically faced the problem of re-creating wartime chaos at a time when residents were attempting to clean up the city.

Welcome to Sarajevo

British-U.S.

Production

A Film Four Distributors (in U.K.)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of a Channel Four Films/Miramax Films presentation of a Dragon Pictures production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book "Natasha's Story" by Michael Nicholson.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Daf Hobson; editor, Trevor Waite; music, Adrian Johnston; production design, Mark Geraghty; art direction, David Minty; costume design, Janty Yates; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Trevis; line producer, Paul Sarony; assistant director, Mary Soan; casting, Simone Ireland, Vanessa Pereira. Reviewed at Warner Village, London, May 2, 1997. In Cannes Film Festival (competing). Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Henderson - Stephen Dillane Flynn - Woody Harrelson Nina - Marisa Tomei Emira - Emira Nusevic Jane Carson - Kerry Fox Risto - Goran Visnjic Gregg - James Nesbitt Annie McGee - Emily Lloyd Jacket - Igor Dzambazov Mrs. Savic - Gordana Gadzic Helen Henderson - Juliet Aubrey Zeljko - Drazen Sivak Munira - Vesna Orel Dragan - Davor Janjic
(English and Bosnian dialogue.)

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