Under Fire: Journalists in Combat: Film Review

Harrowing documentary details the traumas of combat journalism.

Martyn Burke's documentary hauntingly dissects the rise of media mortality in the war zone and the mental disorders that follow.

There’s a damning set of statistics presented at the beginning of Under Fire: Journalists in Combat that give it a haunting immediacy. It seems that a mere two journalists were killed in World War I, and 63 journalists lost their lives in World War II. Contrast that with 1397 members of the news media killed in the ten years between 1996 and 2006.

That precipitous rate of mortality, as well as an alarming rise in kidnappings and torture, has led journalists to be at increased risk for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorder and substance abuse. Martin Burke’s documentary, currently on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination, provides interviews with a series of prominent war correspondents and photographers who provide vivid testimony as to both the hazards and the allures of the profession.

Although the film’s series of talking heads interviews--accompanied by flashy visuals and interspersed with often graphic and disturbing combat footage—hardly breaks any new aesthetic ground, the technique is generally effective. That’s because the subjects, each of whom is accompanied by a list of their scarily extensive combat credits-- are an almost uniformly articulate, insightful group who frequently prove themselves capable of analyzing their own complex motivations. 

Thus you have Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent and author of War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, describing himself as being a “war junkie”—“In the same way a drug physically breaks down an addict, I was being broken down by war,” he explains. 

Finbarr O’Reilly, a Reuter’s photojournalist who is seen being given onscreen therapy by the film’s co-producer, psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein, admits that he had a compulsion to get into the war: “You sort of resign yourself to the fact that you’re probably going to get hurt and just hope that it isn’t too badly when it happens.” 

The film, which borrows part if its title from Roger Spottiswoode’s superb 1983 film drama about war journalists in Nicaragua, also explores the sort of moral issues haunting war journalists. Paul Watson of The Los Angeles Times describes his lingering guilt over having photographed the corpse of a U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, while BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen is haunted by his decision to stop at a certain location, only to then watch a colleague get killed just a short distance away (we see the live footage).

There will hopefully come a time when this documentary will come to seem a piece of vintage history. But right now that time seems a long ways away. 

Bottom Line: Harrowing documentary details the traumas of combat journalism.

Mercury Media International.
Production: JUF Pictures.
Director/screenwriter: Martyn Burke.
Producers: Martyn Burke, Anthony Feinstein.
Executive producer: Laura Morton.
Director of photography: Donald Purser.
Editor: Christopher McEnroe.
Music: Mark Korven.
No rating, 90 min.