A confusing documentary.
Every major humanitarian crisis seems to be treated as a referendum on the humaneness of the most developed countries. Whether it’s earthquake in Haiti, famine in Yemen or mass slaughter in Libya, the crux of the issue in North America seems to be whether we are willing to marshal our prodigious resources to go over and “do something” about it. There is an inherent paternalism in this akin to the colonialist mindset that excused European and US expansion throughout the 19th century–which is likely the cause of the humanitarian crisis to begin with. In other words, humanitarian intervention is complicated. When extreme violence broke out in Syria in 2011, the inevitable question was soon leveled: will the US, with the most expensive military in human history, take action (read: send in troops)? As was shown in January’s The Final Year, the Obama administration was split but ultimately decided against a military intervention. That decision is at the center of the documentary Under the Wire, tracing the final days of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in a rocket attack in Homs, Syria in February 2012 after sneaking into the city with photographer Paul Conroy. The film is based on Conroy’s book about the events and is comprised mainly of his narration.
It is a confusing documentary. The primary purpose of the film remains elusive, as Under the Wire juggles between paean to Colvin and plea for intervention in Syria. It never commits to either track and, after the midway point, it shifts focus again to the minute details of the days after Colvin’s death, when Conroy and two other journalists who were injured in the bombing try to escape Homs alive. From tug-at-the-conscience-of-the-Western-world shots of babies dying in artillery strikes to flashbacks of Colvin’s undeniable bravery during the genocide in East Timor in the ‘90s to Blair Witch Project-style bouncy, nocturnal handheld camera work dramatizing Conroy’s fight to survive, the movie gives the viewer topical whiplash. When the credits roll there remains no answer to what the film was all about.
Furthermore, the film provides little context for the battle of Homs. It makes unsubstantiated claims about the battle being a one-way slaughter, when facts—like the fact that the siege lasted three years—would suggest that both sides were armed to the teeth. It does not complicate the notion that the US can go “fix” Syria by taking action (an omission made all the more glaring by director Chris Martin’s previous film, The War on Democracy, which revealed how nefarious US foreign policy often is). It suggests that Colvin and Conroy were renegades who were alone in reporting from Homs, when in reality there were several international correspondents in the area.
But even on the smallest scale, Under the Wire is vague. For example, a drainage tunnel that plays a crucial role in the film is simply described as “long”; surely, professional journalists can be more specific. The overall lack of specificity throughout should make viewers skeptical: It means that the filmmakers are either unwilling or incapable of being more precise, and either option is damning. As a work of cinema, the movie again comes up short, adopting a Greengrass-like rapid-cut editing style that makes the photography feel rushed, even though it released more than six years after the events. The film’s sound primarily consists of Conroy talking, which is not really dynamic. Worse, in multiple scenes a voiceover reads a six-year-old newspaper article, while other scenes show characters watching footage on their laptop, as if the article and footage are more worthy of attention than the documentary.
At least Under the Wire clarifies the most important issue: if this is the most persuasive argument that pro-interventionists can levy, it is fortunate that US Commanders-in-Chief have mostly kept US military personnel out of Syria since 2011.