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At a crucial point in The Journey Is the Destination, when the young activist played by Ben Schnetzer is leading a group of friends across Africa to deliver aid to refugees, their commitment wavers in the face of serious setbacks. He turns to them, exasperated, and asks, “Did you think this was going to be a vacation?” It’s a fair question, but it also points to the film’s chief problem. For too much of its running time, Bronwen Hughes’ feature feels more like a hyper-ebullient travelogue than a biographical portrait of an extraordinary young man.
Though the movie struggles to find its protagonist’s point of view, Schnetzer (Pride) brings effortless energy and charisma to the role. Dan Eldon, American-British and raised in Kenya, has been the subject of several small-screen documentaries since his death in 1993 at age 22, his inspirational legacy kept alive by his family (his mother is one of the biopic’s producers). Eldon, whose many accomplishments include his hiring by Reuters as the news service’s youngest photojournalist, died along with three colleagues when they were chronicling tumultuous events in Somalia.
In its look at the role of journalists in war zones, the drama is at its most incisive. Through Eldon’s eyes, Journey illuminates the ways that bearing witness can be a double-edged sword, playing into the hands of political leaders and affecting international policy with negative as well as positive results. Just as compelling is the way that Schnetzer and co-stars Kelly Macdonald and Sam Hazeldine avoid clichéd journo heroics while conveying the razor’s-edge adrenaline rush that drives frontline reporters and photographers.
TV vet Hughes, at the helm of her first big-screen feature since 2003’s Stander, wisely avoids backstory in the screenplay she wrote with Jan Sardi (Shine). The story’s in-the-moment forward motion suits the youthful gusto of its main character, who’s figuring it out as he jumps in feetfirst. But with the early sections’ overload of voiceover narrative, motion graphics and split screens, the director strains for exuberance. And despite the nods to Eldon’s (posthumously published) scrapbook-style artist’s journals bearing headlines like “Mission Statement for Safari as a Way of Life,” the effect is dismayingly generic and uninvolving. We get his adventurousness, irrepressible spirit and humanitarian convictions. What’s missing beneath the busy inspirational surface is the specific complexity of an individual.
Eldon’s mild clashes with his self-involved but ultimately understanding mother, Kathy (Maria Bello), go only so far in terms of character definition, though they do set up a significant contrast between his danger-defying distribution of relief goods and the privileged comfort of her life. Less convincing is her refusal to understand the unconventional path he’s chosen over college — until, of course, she does.
The film traces Eldon’s impulsive initiatives from his fund-raising efforts for Mozambican refugees and the trip to deliver the proceeds. The mission’s contingent of friends includes his younger sister, Amy (Ella Purnell), and romantic interest Saba (Yusra Warsama). Under the watchful eyes of her well-heeled parents, Somali-Kenyan Saba is headed for law studies at Cambridge. She also harbors a harrowing secret, revealed to Eldon in one of the film’s most affecting sequences.
Cinematographer Giulio Biccari captures Eldon’s first foray and his subsequent travels with immediacy, from the awe-inspiring close encounters with buffalo and elephants to frightening run-ins with soldiers, gangsters, sniper fire and rebel rockets. Once the inaugural mission is accomplished, it’s no surprise when the others head home and Eldon keeps going.
His resourcefulness trumps his inexperience, but he’s eventually welcomed into a community that includes American photojournalist Duff, played with convincing matter-of-factness by Macdonald, and the more seasoned journos O’Reilly (Hazeldine) and Mo Shaffi (Gugun Deep Singh). Their camaraderie comes through without overstatement as Eldon follows them to Mogadishu, a region of devastating famine and tribal wars.
The film’s only complexity lies in its astute observations on the political impact of reportage, and the way so-called humanitarian efforts, like those of the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, can deepen the suffering of the people they aim to protect. The screenplay puts Orwellian semantics under a questioning lens — a local’s painted protest declares, “Consultation = colonization,” and Clinton’s Operation Restore Hope ups the firepower and the “collateral damage.”
All of this feeds directly into the horrendous end of Eldon’s short but deeply engaged life. That the film wraps with a bland and unaffecting “celebration of life” is telling. Eldon was clearly an exceptional person, profoundly compassionate and brave, but the film’s broad strokes barely bring him into focus.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Prospero Pictures, Creative Visions Foundation, Producer Capital Fund, Out of Africa Entertainment
Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Kelly Macdonald, Sam Hazeldine, Yusra Warsama, Ella Purnell, Maria Bello, Gugun Deep Singh
Director: Bronwen Hughes
Screenwriters: Jan Sardi, Bronwen Hughes
Producers: Martin Katz, Kathy Eldon, Richard Arlook, Kweku Mandela, Adam Friedlander, Bronwen Hughes
Executive producers: Una Jackman, Jay Alix, Regina Scully, Nicolas Chartier, Jonathan Deckter, Gary Slaight, Tero Ojanpera, Nion McEvoy, Warren Ostergard, Blair Hahn, Michael Bedner, Maria Bello, Michael Brickman
Director of photography: Giulio Biccari
Production designer: Bobby Cardoso
Costume designer: Ruy Filipe
Editors: Robert Ivison, Natan Moss
Composer: Duncan Bridgeman
Casting: Olivia Scott Webb
Rated R, 123 minutes
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