You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Jim: The James Foley Story’

Brian Oakes' family-endorsed study of the slain U.S. photojournalist movingly humanizes the victim of an unspeakable tragedy.

Diane Foley, John Foley, John Foley Jr., Michael Foley, Mark Foley, Katie Foley, Nicole Tung, Daniel Rye Ottosen, Manu Brabo, Zac Baillie, Clare Gillis. (English, Arabic dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5278466/

Toward the end of “Jim: The James Foley Story,” Brian Oakes’ adoring personal portrait of the U.S. photojournalist slain by ISIS in 2014, his mother Diane makes a poignant observation on the process of communal mourning: “I didn’t know him as a man — I got to know him through his friends.” Audiences might come to a similar conclusion. Not so much a fully faceted impression of a complex man as a reflection of the love he inspired in others, Oakes’ film may not share its subject’s hard-headed journalistic drive, but as an articulation of grief — directed by a childhood friend, with significant participation from the Foley family — it’s undeniably moving. With ISIS terror still prevalent, and the public’s collective wound from Foley’s death still an open one, viewer interest should be high in this HBO presentation when it hits smaller screens in February.

Surely no one who had even a passing acquaintance with news media in 2014 is able to forget the footage of Foley, shaven-headed and orange-robed, forced to read a vituperative anti-American screed in the Syrian desert, or the image of his subsequently decapitated corpse — a grotesque trophy and a vivid symbol of the threat posed by ISIS to their targeted Western enemies. It’s an image both recent and morbidly evocative enough for viewers that Oakes feels no need to include it in his film, which seeks to replace the masses’ tragic first impression of Foley with a kinder, more  human portrayal of the man behind the martyr.

There can be a risk of sentimental hypocrisy in such posthumous character studies: After all, from an historical and ethical standpoint, Foley’s death would be no more or less abhorrent if he were a saint or a sociopath. Yet the personal perspective of Oakes’ film aims less to nudge viewers into revisions of their own grief, and more to define — to reclaim, even — the personal nature of a loss that was broadly politicized in the panicked media response it inspired. “Jim” treads a fine line between canonizing its eponymous subject and does devotedly humanizing him: as a restless, irrational seeker who perhaps never quite found the optimal outlet for his drive to educate others and show them the surrounding world. Foley came to journalism relatively late, following a stalled career in teaching: “He had a million-dollar resume and a 10-cent interview,” a friend notes, as others jointly testify — perhaps with self-consoling hindsight — that Foley was never cut out for the comfortable working life.

Even Foley’s flaws — chiefly, as described here, his self-oriented impracticality — might characterize him as a kind of romantic American crusader for public knowledge. (Rugged good looks, including what one colleague describes as “a jawline you could cut cheese with,” only enhance the impression.) Unexamined heroism doesn’t make for the most compelling documentaries, but Oakes does tug gently at lingering feelings of familial anger and resentment left in the wake of Foley’s journalistic missions to Libya — where he was captured and ultimately released by Gaddafi loyalist forces in 2011 — and, fatally, Syria. The question of what he died for hangs in the air, disconsolately unanswered; fleeting, stop-press allusions to last November’s Paris attacks stress the discomfiting point that Foley’s death is but an early marker in ISIS’s ongoing campaign of terror.

As a fellow journalist notes, Foley would have been displeased at himself becoming a Syrian story, while his own work in exposing human-rights crises in the region goes largely unseen. Indeed, much of the most revelatory footage in “Jim” comes from Foley’s own camera: inquisitive, keenly shot street studies with an intuitive affinity for enduring ordinary life amid the wreckage of conflict. The film’s talking-head ensemble of family, friends and associates make much of what a good man was lost in the tragedy; what a good journalist he was, too, is more modestly expressed. Foley’s kin retreat for the film’s gripping last third, which is given over to the testimonies of an “invented family”: The surviving European photojournalists with whom Foley shared a detainment unit in Syria for the better part of 18 months. Their recollections of the cold, violent horrors of joint captivity lend darker human heft to the film, which accordingly adopts a stonier visual tone and increased use of tactful re-enactment; there was perhaps a separate doc entirely to be made from this window into Foley’s protracted last days.

Tech credits are sound throughout, with Clair Popkin’s bright, steady camerawork sharply defining the world of neutral New England suburbia in which Foley could never quite settle. A plaintive, piano-heavy score, however, is overly instructive of feelings that — given the voices and views at hand — hardly need to be forced, straining for an inspirational key as interviewees agree that Foley “ended up free.” Closing-credits ballad “The Empty Chair” — custom-composed by docmakers’ favorite J. Ralph and crooned by Sting — is more stickily emotive than anything in the film that precedes it, and considerably less personal.

Sundance Film Review: 'Jim: The James Foley Story'

Reviewed at HBO screening room, Los Angeles, Jan. 20, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 110 MIN. 

Production: (Documentary) A Kunhardt Films, Marigold Pictures presentation in association with HBO Documentary Films. Produced by Eva Lipman, George Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt. Executive producer, Peter Kunhardt.

Crew: Directed by Brian Oakes. Written by Chris Chuang, Heather MacDonald, Oakes. Camera (color), Clair Popkin; editor, Aleks Gezentsvey; music, Dan Romer, Saul Simon MacWilliams, Osei Essed; sound, Chris Chuang, Denzil Xavier; re-recording mixer, Mike Frank; associate producer, Chris Chuang.

With: Diane Foley, John Foley, John Foley Jr., Michael Foley, Mark Foley, Katie Foley, Nicole Tung, Daniel Rye Ottosen, Manu Brabo, Zac Baillie, Clare Gillis. (English, Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • Paul Davidson

    The Orchard Head Content Executive Paul Davidson Steps Down

    At the finish line of its sale to 1091 Media, distributor the Orchard’s film and TV head Paul Davidson is parting ways with the company. In an amicable split, the creative executive addressed staff in person and in a company-wide memo on Tuesday in New York City to inform them of his decision. More Reviews [...]

  • Ava DuVernay Toby Emmerich Michael Douglas

    Ava DuVernay, Toby Emmerich, Michael Douglas to Speak at Produced By Conference

    Ava DuVernay, Toby Emmerich, and Michael Douglas will speak at the Producers Guild of America’s 11th Produced By Conference. The event will be held on June 8-9 at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. More Reviews West End Review: 'Emilia' Film Review: Tim Burton's 'Dumbo' Other notable speakers include Netflix executive Cindy Holland; Blumhouse producer [...]

  • Jean Francois Helene Etzi

    Disney's French Chief Jean-Francois Camilleri Exiting, Helene Etzi Upped

    Jean-Francois Camilleri is leaving Disney after more than 30 years and will replaced as the head of its French operation by Helene Etzi. Sources said Camilleri’s departure was his own decision. He announced his exit on Twitter, Tuesday, and paid tribute to his team and colleagues at Disney, thanking them for the “unique adventure.” More [...]

  • dumbo Tim Burton

    Film Review: Tim Burton's 'Dumbo'

    The key image in Walt Disney’s 1941 “Dumbo” is something out of a fairy-tale daydream: Dumbo, the baby elephant with long-lashed goo-goo eyes, a cuddly grin, and ears as long and floppy as wings, flapping those ears to soar around a circus big top, flying over the crowds with a freedom as touching as it [...]

  • Guys and Dolls

    'Guys and Dolls' Getting Remade at TriStar (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Guys and Dolls,” the venerable Broadway musical, is set to return to the big screen. TriStar Pictures has purchased remake rights to the original Damon Runyon short stories about gamblers and gangsters that inspired the shows, as well as the rights to the Broadway musical with its book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and [...]

  • Captain America: Civil War

    'Black Widow,' 'Little Women,' 'Charlie's Angels' Among Most Tracked Female-Directed Projects, IMDb Says (EXCLUSIVE)

    Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow,” Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman 2,” and Elizabeth Banks’s “Charlie’s Angles” are among the ten most tracked projects on IMDbPro. Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”), and Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding”) rank among the most widely followed female directors on the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content