Des fleurs pour Harrison
starring Andie MacDowell, David Strathairn, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody
screenplay by Elie Chouraqui & Didier Le Pêcheur & Isabel Ellsen and Michael Katims, based on the novel by Ellsen
directed by Elie Chouraqui
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Movie logic has always dictated that any film about a strife-torn part of the world must be told from the point of view of an outsider who resembles a movie star. Thus Stephen Biko's story was filtered through the eyes of white Donald Woods in Cry Freedom, a film about colonial subjugation of indigenous peoples (The Mission) centred on the methodological bickering of two priests, and many a current foreign affair has been recounted via the selfless acts of the American reporters who expose them (Salvador, Under Fire, etc.). Harrison's Flowers falls into this latter category of journalistic brio: though its story of a search for a missing photographer looks great when compared to its appalling cousin Welcome to Sarajevo, it's on the same self-serving moral plane, with the machinations of reporting hogging the camera while the events that need be covered are crowded far outside the frame.
The sins are myriad and easy to identify. "Newsweek" photographer Harrison Lloyd (David Strathairn) is one of those cinematic "best there is" professionals whose prowess you have to take on faith. He's got a big house, a loving wife named Sarah (Andie MacDowell), and, of course, that gig with the magazine. Sure, he's chided by a tousle-haired colleague (Adrien Brody) that his star is ill-won, and has a cold relationship with his sensitive son, but that just lends him an arbitrary "complexity" as the awards pile up. When he leaves to report on the just-escalating Yugoslavian war and becomes engulfed by the chaos, Sarah, buoyed by an anonymous silent phone call, refuses to accept the assumption that he might be dead. Soon she is sneaking past the borders and taking enormous risks in order to find her husband--and if the war gets in the way, well, that's simply another credential in her role as stoic spouse.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that reporters and their families ought to remain silent regarding the risks that they take. But these things for which we should thank them, like background information on the places they cover and exposure of military atrocities, deserve to get the lion's share of their intentions. Harrison's Flowers makes the journalists the end and not the means: their stories and personalities are the only ones we ever see developed, and they suck the screen time away from the little matter of the war, which the film dismisses as a crazy unsolvable riddle. According to one character, there are "no good guys and no bad guys," meaning we can write the whole thing off as an overgrown gang war and concentrate on Sarah's mission. Had the film examined the tenuous relationship between outsiders and the people they cover, the film might have had a purpose. Sadly, it instead chooses to make the war the pretext for heroism instead of something to be resolved.
To be fair, the film is not without a few mitigating virtues. It doesn't skimp on the horrible violence of the war; unlike the tasteful and faux-cynical posing of the aforementioned Welcome to Sarajevo, occasionally sideswiping the drama with such brutal examples of fighting as the murder of a Croat whom Sarah picks up and a roam through the bloody streets of a falling Vukovar. It's not enough to save the picture, but at least it makes its presence known. And while Elie Chouraqui's direction is unremarkable, the background performers are vivid and capable, especially Brody, Elias Koteas, and Brendan Gleeson, who play the journalists leading Sarah through the bullets and bombs. Without their interplay, the film would lose what little vitality it has, and Brody, in particular, gives a reckless and playful face to what could have been a bland soda cracker of a role.
Despite their better efforts, Harrison's Flowers served only to remind me of the one outsider-looks-in political movie worth considering: Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season. It isn't a masterpiece, but it turns on its white South African lead dawning to responsibility: in following his search for the police who shot his servant's children, he has to let go of his comfort zone and choose sides, resulting in not just putting his life at risk but changing how he views the world. However much 'they' risk their lives in Harrison's Flowers, a comfort zone is still there, meaning their attempts to tell awful stories result in little more than bragging rights. Originally published: March 15, 2002.