With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the current struggle to rid the world of terrorism, the importance of historical documentation has assumed a new, desperate urgency. Passionate reporters and photographers feel compelled to uphold a dual responsibility: to allow access to war and to preserve the emotional resonance of the moment for future generations.
In the new war drama “Harrison’s Flowers,” one such photographer takes this responsibility to heart. Kyle, played with raw, trembling power by the remarkable young actor Adrien Brody, feverishly asserts: “Someone has to the tell the story of this War.” Instead of simply exploring journalistic integrity, the film, starring Andie McDowell, intertwines Kyle’s drive to capture the devastation of war with one wife’s determination to find her lost husband. The result is a very timely movie that uses familiar human motivations to intensify the need to record history.
Despite its “timeliness,” “Harrison’s Flowers” does not examine the current struggle in Afghanistan. Instead, it takes place in the early 90’s amid Yugoslavia’s violent deterioration into brutal ethnic conflict. McDowell plays Sarah Lloyd, a working mom who balances her suburban home life with her fast-paced urban work environment. Her husband Harrison (David Straithairn) is a prominent, ambitious “Newsweek” photographer who loves his job yet misses spending time with his kids, his wife, and tending to his greenhouse.
When a “small skirmish” erupts in Yugoslavia, Harrison must leave to cover the growing ethnic tensions — despite Sarah’s reservations. The skirmish quickly develops into a large-scale battle, and within days, Sarah discovers that her husband was killed after seeking protection in a soon-to-be destroyed hostel. Upon hearing the news, Sarah crumbles; she grows obsessed with the notion that her husband is still alive, and that only she can save him.
Leaving her children and career behind, a determined and crazed Sarah goes to the center of the conflict and is quickly forced to face the horrors of combat. She meets up with some American photographers (including Brody), who agree to help Sarah with her quest.
The story’s relevance gives the film a powerful emotional impact. After the tragic loss of Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Pearl, such sacrifice to “document history” has gained stronger potency. Sarah becomes an embodiment of the active risk Americans wish they could take.
Using this real-life intensification, the movie has some stunning moments: Sarah’s sudden, violent entrance into a lawless world where “there are no good guys and no bad guys;” her devastating attempt to fend off a sexually aggressive soldier; the arrival of masses of tanks outside the house in which Sarah and her friends take cover. Because Sarah is so identifiable and the conflict is so immediate, these unflinching moments have an aching power. The memory of Sarah driving carpool lingers even as she desperately tries to escape an exploding building — here the distinct horrors of modern warfare are painfully evident.
As an artistic achievement independent of today’s headlines, “Harrison’s Flowers” is flawed. Although the contrast between the docile homefront and the war is powerful, the overall effect of this setup is minimal. Harrison and Sarah’s relationship never creates that spark needed to justify Sarah’s drastic actions. The dialogue is unimaginative, blatantly and shamelessly foreshadowing future plot twists while offering little character development. Moreover, the slow, plodding pace tries even the most piqued of viewers.
Beyond technical flaws, there are inherent plot dilemmas. For example, how can Sarah risk her life when she has two kids to take care of? It is difficult to reconcile her determination to find her husband, however courageous it appears, with the courage of fighting anguish for the sake of her children. Moreover, the final scenes, in which Sarah and the photographers stagger through a devastated city, become slightly marred by the introduction of a narrative voice. This shift suggests that director Elie Chouraqui lacks confidence in the scene’s drive and power.
Yet the cast is generally superb despite underwritten characters. Brody is the actor to watch. He conveys both withdrawn horror and forward ambition, demonstrating the courage of photographers without making them appear emotionally detached. McDowell carries the film very well, despite the aforementioned difficulties with her character. She succeeds in the daunting task of making Sarah emotionally unstable without making her shrill.
The film’s post-war conclusion matches the pre-war scenes in awkwardness. This finale is meant to capture the rehabilitating effects of life after the detrimental exposure to death, yet its real purpose is to explain the mushy title. The real meat of “Harrison’s Flowers” is the unbridled passion of those photographers. When it taps into the real fears of today’s concerns, “Harrison’s Flowers” flourishes.