Bhutto -- Film Review

Compelling account of Pakistan's charismatic political leader strains for balance.

PARK CITY -- As much a history of modern Pakistan as a portrait of the political dynasty that periodically led the country over two decades, "Bhutto" offers a complex and sometimes confounding perspective on its titular family.

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Presenting a subject of specialized interest and featuring a hefty 115-minute running time, "Bhutto" will find a natural home at international and political-leaning fests, with broadcast its likely ultimate destination when Icon brings the title to the global market.

Within the docu's first 30 minutes filmmakers Jessica Hernandez and Johnny O'Hara succinctly present essential background on the founding of Pakistan following partition with India in 1947 and the ascendancy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the presidency in 1971.

Focus quickly shifts to his daughter and eldest child Benazir, a charismatic young woman educated at Harvard and Oxford who never anticipated a career in politics. But when a 1977 military coup engineered by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq ends in her father's arrest, he passes the mantle of the Pakistani Peoples Party to his daughter. Her campaign for her father's release on a murder conspiracy charge ultimately fails when Bhutto is declared guilty by the Supreme Court and hanged.

His execution was a galvanizing experience for Benazir Bhutto, who won the 1988 national elections to become the first woman Prime Minister of an Islamic nation, but was soon deposed in another military coup. Following her re-election in 1996, she was forced into exile two years later after husband Asif Ali Zardari's arrest on corruption charges and similar allegations against Bhutto herself. A triumphant return to lead the PPP in 2007 elections ended with her assassination, which she had earlier anticipated might come at the hands of then-President Pervez Musharraf.

O'Hara and Hernandez (who also edited) capably interweave interviews with Benazir Bhutto, her family members, advisors and biographers with archival footage, news clips and previously unreleased audio recordings, shaping the wide-ranging material into a comprehensive and compelling narrative. The filmmakers and their sources specifically highlight Bhutto's social development initiatives, promotion of women's status in Pakistani society and international diplomacy.

Interviews with Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan's current President) and her children are particularly affecting, revealing the national leader's intimate domestic life. "Bhutto" producer and Pakistan expert Mark Siegel is also featured extensively in the film.

Although the docu touches on allegations of corruption against Bhutto and Zardari, the potentially damaging charges are not examined in any great detail. Similarly, the viewpoints of Islamic fundamentalist moderates are excluded from the comprehensive examination of successive Pakistani regimes' support for Islamic extremists and relations with al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

While skirting the overtly hagiographic, "Bhutto" is a clearly favorable treatment of the Pakistani leader's mixed legacy that should enthrall supporters, but may frustrate more incisive viewers.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: Yellow Pad Prods. in association with Icon TMI
Directors: Jessica Hernandez, Johnny O'Hara
Screenwriter: Johnny O'Hara
Executive producer: Glenn Aveni
Producers: Duane Baughman, Arleen Sorkin, Mark Siegel, Amy Berg
Music: Mader, Herb Graham Jr., Stewart Copeland and Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari
Editor: Jessica Hernandez
Sales: Icon Television Music
No rating, 115 minutes