Harrison's Flowers
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

Do you know a movie that has this character – a foreign war correspondent who cuts deals right and left and betrays whomever he can in exchange for a story, whether true or false, that could yield him a Pulitzer? I bet you don’t. I’ve never seen one. We’ve seen architects, lawyers, and untold doctors with German accents being the bad guys – but a reporter? From Warren Beatty in Reds to Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields, an American foreign correspondent is as above suspicion as Caesar’s wife.

What is this unholy alliance between the movies and foreign media? Is it just an excuse on the part of Hollywood to indulge in combat violence without involving the Army – sort of a humanitarian version of Black Hawk Down? Or do the writers and directors indeed feel some sort of affinity with war reporters – do they wish they could take their Range Rovers in fifth gear down a Sniper’s Alley instead of traffic jams on Santa Monica Freeway? This argument may be validated by the way Elie Chouraqui shoots a Best News Photographer Award ceremony in Harrison’s Flowers – with both the flashiness of the Oscars and the camaraderie of a narrow circle of professionals. Surely the Hollywood creative types would love to have the latter without sacrificing the former.

On one level, Harrison’s Flowers is a classic bad movie. Look at the very first scenes: a lovely New Jersey home, lovingly shot through a curtain of drizzle; a lovely wife, played by the always lovely Andie McDowell; two lovely tykes; and finally, the return of the Husband the Lens Warrior, the crumpled, hirsute, but unvanquished Harrison Lloyd (David Straithorn, a solid actor who, considering his winning mix of masculinity and sensitivity – stripped of liberal hangups – remains curiously underused). The drizzle here is the visual equivalent of the Star Wars theme: something is eating at the hero’s heart. Something so bad that the combined overpowering loveliness described above cannot cure. Only his greenhouse can. With its lovely flowers that the hero wants to shoot instead of the horrors of war. Funny, in burnouts of the past, Jack Daniels did the trick, plus a whore with a heart of gold. But the year in the film is 1991, not 1941. The mores are different, and no one wears a fedora.

The film’s characters proceed ever so sensitively through their misgivings about what they do – well, they don’t have many of those, their confidence of their cause is supreme. Only one is allowed to have doubts – Kyle (Adrien Brady) – but he also drinks too much and does cocaine. Later on, he’ll have to go through a moral redemption and die a heroic death. (Poor guy was doomed in the first draft.)

Sure enough, Harrison, though burnt-out, allows himself to be talked by his Newsweek editor into yet another last assignment – this time to the Balkans, where Serb tanks are roaring across the countryside. The writers could give him a death in the family or a gambling debt to flee, but no, he has to flee the loveliness and the bourgeois comforts – because the world has to know the truth.

The world certainly does, though what sort of truth is delivered by graphic pictures of burnt buses and raped teenage girls can be argued. Those who want a different side of the story do not necessarily have to join the Slobodan Milosevich Fan Club; they can see a powerful documentary called Ethnic Cleansing that describes in detail how a certain PR firm called Ruder Finn conducted a successful media campaign that turned the international public opinion against the Serbs. Or see a locally made film such as No Man’s Land that at the very least tries to be even-handed.

If even-handedness were Mr. Chouraqui’s objective, he is as ill qualified for reporting as for filmmaking. Though his characters go through the motions of being scared as they clear a Croat checkpoint, anyone who can tell a Croat checkerboard flag from a Serb red-star one would know who the really bad guys are. But truth here is a supporting actor, too. What it’s about is Love and Faith and Perseverance against Common Sense and all odds. When wife Sarah gets the word that her husband has been killed, she drops everything and flies out to look for Harrison who, she is sure, spoke to her on the phone after his official death date. Now we get into the salad of Not Without My Husband with Lorenzo’s Oil dressing.

By now Hollywood has really learned how to photograph wars. The camera work by Nicola Pecorini is so good, with unexpected closeups, that, in the best Hollywood tradition, it forces you to forget the ludicrousness of one situation after another. Consider this: our plucky heroine and her brave escorts walk through the ruins of Vukovar with their cameras at the ready at the same time as the bloodthirsty Serbs mow down every non-Serb in sight. Are our heroes wearing magic capes that render them invisible? Because in previous scenes the Serbs were very much eager to plug them, too – ah, those mysterious, ever confusing Balkans…

I won’t even bother to describe the concluding scenes where our heroic spouses return to their New Jersey loveliness, or the finale where Harrison recognizes his favorite flowers. I don’t do Recovery as a genre, that’s all. But a tank climbing over the car with Andie McDowell in it – that rules, dude.

Before I saw this film, I did something I do not normally do – I read an article about it. It was not a review, mind you, but sort of a professional evaluation: a New York Times foreign reporter Stephen Kinzer sharing his thoughts on the portrayal of his profession in this and other films. Mr. Kinzer loves movies, as is clear from the long list of titles he describes, and he is also a seasoned pro. I was told that way back in Nicaragua, Sandinista spokespersons would hold up a press briefing, waiting for Mr. Kinzer to show up. This doesn’t reflect on his professionalism; but it tells volumes about the star treatment these guys are accustomed to. (At least they have more valid excuses to knock off untold whiskies and smoke like chimneys than their Hollywood counterparts who may bemoan the loss of a parking spot on a studio lot.) Having run through the list of the movies with war correspondents as heroes, Mr. Kinzer sadly concludes that "the great film about foreign correspondents, however, remains to be made." Who knows: would one with a correspondent as a scoundrel have a chance?

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Focus
Movie Web site: Harrison's Flowers



photos: © Universal Studios Inc. All rights reserved.