'Jim: The James Foley Story': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A flawed but sill powerful doc.

James Foley, the journalist executed by ISIS in Syria, is the focus of this documentary made by a childhood friend of his.

The horrific situation in Syria has not yet inspired many thoughtful documentary films, perhaps because filmmakers are still trying to sort out the chaos there. Brian Oakes’ film Jim: The James Foley Story, reminds us of some of the human costs of that conflict while addressing other issues about the role of journalists in an increasingly dangerous world. The film will be shown on HBO two weeks after its world premiere screening at Sundance.

The footage of Foley’s 2014 execution was one of the events that alerted the world to the growing dangers of ISIS. But a title at the beginning of this film assures viewers that the execution will not be shown in the movie. Oakes was actually a childhood friend of Foley’s, so his personal connection to the subject obviously dictates several of the artistic choices made in the film. This is Oakes’ first feature film, and perhaps a more experienced documentarian would have probed a little deeper, but Oakes had the advantage of unfettered access to Foley’s family members, friends and fellow journalists.

One minor problem with the film is that the interviewees are identified by first name only. This is no problem with regard to Foley’s family members, but the strategy seems a bit coy when it comes to interviewing fellow journalists and prisoners. A more significant flaw is the use of staged scenes to re-create Jim’s captivity in Syria. This technique is by now fairly accepted in documentary films, yet it seems overused here and adds very little to the harrowing details recounted by the European journalists who were imprisoned along with Foley.

Another question left unanswered is why these captured foreign journalists were eventually released while Foley was executed. Did French and Danish authorities take a different approach to negotiating with terrorists than the American government? The film implies that this may have been the case but fails to clarify this issue. 

One may also feel a nagging dissatisfaction about the film’s exploration of Foley’s character. One of the people interviewed refers to Jim’s “macho aggressiveness,” and his mother mentions that he had a solitary bent that distinguished him from his siblings. Foley was imprisoned for 44 days while covering the civil war in Libya in 2011, so he clearly recognized the dangers of conflict journalism. Then why did he return to an even more dangerous civil war in Syria? His own psychological makeup is something that a more objective filmmaker might have probed more trenchantly. Several people comment that frontline journalists help to inform the world of humanitarian crises, and this is undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully explain what motivates some of these people to put themselves repeatedly in the line of fire.

Jim ultimately raises more questions than it can answer, so it cannot be considered a completely satisfying documentary. Nevertheless, it builds undeniable emotional force as it reaches its somber conclusion. We come away more aware of escalating global tragedies, and that alone validates this imperfect film.

Director: Brian Oakes
Screenwriter: Chris Chuang, Heather MacDonald, Brian Oakes
Producers: Eva Lipman, George Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt
Executive producer: Peter Kunhardt
Director of photography: Clair Popkin
Editor: Aleks Gezentsvey
Music: Dan Romer, Saul Simon MacWilliams, Osei Essed
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

No rating, 113 minutes

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