Jim: The James Foley Story (HBOGo)
Brian Oakes’ Jim: The James Foley Story begins with a title card telling us that while we will be witnessing disturbing images of war, we will not be shown the video of Foley’s execution. The film then cuts right to one of Foley’s brothers, describing how he found out about his brother’s death through a reporter and the horror of watching that fateful video. It sets the tone perfectly for the nearly two hours that follow: we are able to understand and appreciate the work of conflict journalist James Foley and the sacrifices he made, and marvel at the human being he was, but we can’t quite get to the heart of why he risked what he risked.
This isn’t to fault the film at all. At the end, when Jim Foley’s mother says that she isn’t quite sure she even knew her son “as a man,” we realize that that is the crux of the film. Jim Foley did what most of us can never dream of doing, and the film follows the entire thread of his life through to the end–from aimless child to teacher to war reporter to two-time P.O.W. and finally to his death at the hands of the Islamic State. Along the way, we get intimate insight into what Foley does at every turn of events and how he acts around his friends and family. In the final third, when the film slows down and lets his cell mates lay out in minute detail what the final two years of his life were like, we begin to understand the rock solid persona that Foley exhibited to others. Oakes, a close friend of Foley’s, is never able to uncover what was under the persona, though.
Why did Foley risk everything, time and time again, even after narrowly escaping death once? What brings someone to sacrifice themselves to tell the stories of people on the other side of the Earth? Maybe no one can answer those questions, not even Foley’s closest friends and family. Even if Jim can’t answer them, though, or really leave us with a true understanding of who Foley was deep down in his heart, it paints such a great picture of what Foley did, and the lives that he saved, revealed and improved, that it still stands as a true testament to a great journalist.
Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (Showtime Anytime)
Spike Lee is a great storyteller, and the first half of his newest documentary about Michael Jackson showcases that talent. Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall tells the story the title sets up, following Jackson from the first emergence of the Jackson 5 through his first solo album Off the Wall. Using a series of talking heads and concert clips, the complicated weaving through the music world of the 70s is a clear narrative, getting from place to place and name to name without ever losing the viewer along the trail. The talking heads may be a little questionable (Kobe Bryant’s thoughts on Michael Jackson aren’t truly necessary), but what they say paints the portrait of Jackson perfectly.
The second half of the film is where it becomes something unique. Once Lee gets us to Off the Wall, he spends considerable time dissecting the album. Going from track to track, he lets music experts and Jackson fans explain the genius of each number and then intercuts them with clips that exude that genius at every turn. As a tribute to Michael Jackson, it is fitting and magical.