In November 2012, freelance American war journalist James Foley and English photojournalist John Cantlie were abducted by ISIL. In August 2014, James Foley was beheaded in a letter to America. In November 2014, John Cantlie reappeared in a series of videos critical of the Western foreign policy. In November 2015, an ISIL magazine published articles supposedly penned by John, but his actual status is currently unknown. Jim: The James Foley Story opens by announcing that the footage of James Foley’s beheading will not be shown.
As the title bluntly states, Brian Oakes’ new documentary is a eulogy to the photojournalist who lost his life for his duty to the truth. If that sounds a bit on the nose, Oakes isn’t interested in a warts and all retelling of Foley’s life; Jim is far more hagiography than dissection. Foley was a tall, handsome, upper-middle-class college-educated white guy from New Hampshire who found his calling as a free lance journalist in Libya. According to Jim, Foley was a magnetic personality who easily made positive personal connections with people of all backgrounds, making him a natural for integrating with the locals.
James’ story isn’t solely that of a photojournalist from a well-off background; Foley’s story involves the death of newspapers, the rise of the gig economy, Middle Eastern politics, and American foreign policy. His first “assignment” was a stint in Libya, where he witnessed city bombings of innocent civilians, and the destruction of public services. In 2011, he was kidnapped by Gaddafi loyalists for 44 days. After his release, he returned to Libya to finish the story of the social uprising. Foley would move on to the Syrian Civil War, where al-Assad was bombing his civilians after the Arab Spring uprising. It was in Syria that ISIL kidnapped John and James.
Even though Foley’s life has so many different potent narratives, Oakes is far more interested in filtering all of the stories through James Foley. He doesn’t dig deep into Syria’s civil war, nor into the rise of ISIL, nor into Libya’s unrest, nor into American foreign policy. It’s only because Foley is a journalist that Oakes even touches on the dangers of being a freelance journalist without a moneyed news bureau to have your back. Instead, we get stretches of James’ pre-journalist life, and an extended recreation of several months of life in captivity as told by a handful of his now-freed prison mates. The deepest we get into the US foreign policy is months of obfuscation and misdirection that barely touches on a US military rescue mission. If you’re looking for political substance or insight, you have to dig for it.
Because this is a eulogy, Jim is far more interested in the emotional than the political, touching briefly on points where the two intersect. Which, I mean, he’s a decent dude, but this movie is so simplistically focused on him rather than his own deeper political meaning or symbolism. At the end of the movie, one of his brothers comments that James would think that the story shouldn’t be about him, but the story should be about the world he’s in. Oakes missed that memo by a longshot.
Jim: The James Foley Story premieres on HBO on Saturday 2/6 at 6pm.