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.