The Lord High Executioner in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” gloats about his “little list” of future victims, but Kirk Johnson totes around a bigger one in “The List” — several huge binders’ worth. On it are names, credentials, commendations and profiles of Iraqis whose faithful service on behalf of various U.S. forces and agencies have exposed them and their families to terrorist reprisals. Though the pic traces Oskar Schindler-esque heroic actions by a lone American in a fight for justice, its effectiveness stems equally from the autonomy it grants its Iraqi protagonists. Strong docu should hit theaters prior to smallscreen play.
While opposed in principle to the invasion of Iraq, Johnson felt his extensive knowledge of Islamic culture and fluency in Arabic compelled him to join the reconstruction efforts then under way. But his mission shifted when an email from Yaghdan, an Iraqi friend and fellow worker, told of threatened reprisals for his aid to Americans. The email, which Johnson posted on the Internet, precipitated a flood of cries for help from people in similar straits. Helmer Beth Murphy even includes extremists’ videos showing bloody executions of such “traitors” to emphasize the immediacy of the danger.
Johnson managed to amass a roomful of pro bono lawyers willing to shepherd Iraqis through the labyrinthine red tape that the Patriot Act added to already stringent immigration laws. Although thousands of Iraqis gained access to the U.S., few were on Johnson’s list. Murphy shows Johnson testifying before Congressional committees about the government’s moral obligation to save those who risked their lives to help the U.S. Some representatives express appropriate shock and outrage, but accomplish nothing concrete.
Helmer Murphy closely follows several listees who made it out of Iraq. Yaghdan and his brood, shown meeting several times with Johnson in Baghdad, were warmly welcomed by him upon deplaning and invited to stay at his parents’ Midwestern home. Murphy also catches up with Ibrahim, who became Johnson’s right-hand man when he finally reached America, testifying before Congress and assisting others in their quest to escape Iraqi retaliation.
Murphy’s previous docu, “Beyond Belief,” similarly featured a cross-cultural dual focus, as two American women widowed by 9/11 travel to Afghanistan to help war widows there. While that film opened with the wives’ reactions to their loss, it’s not until late in “The List” that Murphy introduces Johnson’s hitherto unsuspected trauma, as he admits that his decision to aid Iraqis came from his inability to get beyond his own experiences there.
Ending in neither triumph nor defeat, “The List” celebrates the determined efforts of a sole American to effectuate a rescue that should seem a no-brainer.