It’s likely you already know the story of the death of James Foley, the American journalist kidnapped in Syria and murdered by ISIS in 2014. His colleague, Clare Gillis, mentions in “Jim: The James Foley Story,” that the news story had a 94% awareness among the American public. The video of the journalist’s execution was almost impossible to ignore in the days and weeks that followed the tragic event. The picture of him in his orange jumpsuit against a desert landscape, with the looming figure of a black hooded executioner is one of the indelible images that heralded the era of ISIS. So while his death is well-known, the film seeks to issue a corrective — to illuminate the life of the man.
Directed by Brian Oakes, ‘Jim’ is at once an intimate portrait of a restless spirit and a family’s journey to understand him, as well as a treatise on the state of international conflict journalism and world news in today’s market. Just as “Spotlight” lauds the dogged, unglamorous work of local investigative reporting, ‘Jim’ highlights the dangers and tenuousness of freelance conflict journalism — the limited resources, low pay, competitiveness, and adrenaline addiction that drives disparate people to the frontlines — but also expresses the absolute necessity of this work.
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We come to know Jim Foley through three different groups of people — his family, his fellow journalists, and his fellow prisoners. The last group is perhaps the most moving, as they recall Jim with a palpable tenderness, smiling as they speak of his generosity and caring spirit in the last year of his life. It must be a comfort to his family and friends that he was well-loved even during his captivity and torture.
Raised in a large Catholic New Hampshire family, James was a bit of an odd duck, the well-loved black sheep who never quite found his groove in the U.S. Throughout their interviews, his family expresses their frustration at some of his choices and their futility in getting him to settle down. They express a spectrum of emotions: confusion, anger, regret, and a deep sadness. This is particularly poignant when they discuss James’ first capture while working in Libya, where he was held in a prison for 44 days. That he wanted to return to the field — and they couldn’t stop him — after this experience is a regret with which they continue to grapple.
Among the journalists, the beauty and the purity of the work comes through — they eloquently express both the thrill-seeking rush of being in the action, and the urge to do work that matters in some way — exposing oppression and the atrocities committed by these groups. This makes journalists some of the most dangerous foes to groups such as ISIS, and therefore vulnerable targets.
Ultimately, it’s through the filmmaking process of ‘Jim’ itself that brings James Foley fully into focus, shedding light on every part of who he was: son, brother, journalist, hostage, friend. It’s the three groups speaking in concert about the person that they loved that fully paints the picture of James Foley. A person who struggled with the realities and logistics of everyday “normal” life — saving money, being organized — but who demonstrated an incredible amount of love and grace underneath torture, beatings, and captivity. It’s clear that his real talent was in his social intelligence, and his connection with other people. Listening to a French journalist describe how James was the only person who he’d let call him “bro,” is a funny, yet also deeply touching moment that captures that his ineffable ability to connect with others.
Oakes relies heavily on intimate interviews for the film, and it’s clear the subjects trust him implicitly in revealing varying emotions, calling him “Brian” on camera with a closeness. During the interviews with those who were in captivity, Oakes carefully and artfully uses reenactments to visually express some of the events that the former hostages talk about — the games they played, the food they smuggled, the Christmases and birthdays they shared, and the brutality of the British ISIS leaders they nicknamed “The Beatles.”
There’s other archival footage as well, and photographs from the photojournalists that James worked with. His own footage from the frontlines is often raw and tough to watch, especially in the aftermath of bombings. Then there’s the video of Jim’s execution. His death is not shown, but they do show the beginning of the video, to show his defiance and strength until the last moment.
At the end, there are still larger questions that loom around around the death of James Foley — did the United States do enough to secure his freedom? What were the logistics of why this happened? Is the freelancing system failing to fully protect journalists? Those questions cannot truly be answered, though the film sparks that conversation. But the focus is on the person Jim was, and the ways in which, through his captivity and death, his family came to truly know him, and know his strength. It’s an incredibly moving film that encompasses a wide scope of global issues through the intimate remembrance of one life. [A-]
“Jim: The Story of James Foley” will air on HBO starting February 6th.