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Jim: The James Foley Story

Jim: The James Foley Story
Directed by: Brian Oakes
Released on: HBO & Sundance Film Festival 2016
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

For most Americans, the introduction to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (AKA ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) came via the video of American journalist James "Jim" Foley. Shaved, dressed in orange clothing and kneeling somewhere in a desert in Syria, Foley was forced to read "Warning to America" before a camera. After he finished reading the forced diatribe against family and country, Foley was beheaded.

The story of how the man met his tragic fate is the subject of director Brian Oakes documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story.

To the documentary's credit it makes it clear from the beginning that this will not be a sensationalized hagiography of the 40-year-old murdered journalist, but about why he did the work and the prices he, and others, paid for it. "The film shows images of war recorded by conflict journalists. It does not show the execution of Jim," the opening credits declare.

The oldest child of five, Foley was born in Evanston, Illinois and raised in a nice middle class neighborhood in New Hampshire. After a brief stint teaching, Foley got into journalism, quickly moving into dangerous areas around the world to cover. In 2011 he made headline news when he and two other journalists were detained by Libya's government -- during the Libyan Civil War. The journalists were held at detention center in Tripoli for 44 days.

For most people, and many journalists, this encounter with imprisonment in a foreign land during a civil war would deter them from ever doing such a thing, again. But not for Foley. Released in May, Foley was back in Libya by October to witness Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's last days. The following year, Foley decided to cover the civil war in Syria.

He was subsequently abducted on Thanksgiving 2012, and then beaten and tortured for over a year before his infamous execution.

A childhood friend, Oakes gained access to Foley's family, friends and fellow captors -- in both Libya and Syria. These interviews, coupled with the diehard, frontline journalism of Foley and fellow journalists, Jim: The James Foley Story paints a picture of man who gave everything he could to make the world a better place.

A liberal in a somewhat conservative family, James was often at odds with his family over his work. They could not understand why he would risk so much for foreigners. His brother, John Foley Jr., served in the Air Force and was politically at odds with the work his older brother was doing. He feels anger, guilt and pride when he talks about Jim. Jim's other three siblings, as well as his parents grapple with the memory and loss of their brother in different ways. Yet the one common thread seems that they only understand Jim in hindsight and by the testimonies of the ones he had touched.

Those testimonies of fellow journalists and fellow prisoners are especially moving. For his comrades, Jim was never afraid to cover those who never know the peace most Americans live and breathe in. How would Americans know what in the world is going on "over there" if it were not for the likes of Jim covering the issue?

Jim was never afraid or at least he never showed it. Several of his fellow prisoners attest how Jim was a gentle, deep soul "without any evil." For nearly two years, prisoners were starved, beaten, and subjected to mental and physical tortures. According to those interviewed in Jim: The James Foley Story, the documentary's titular character was the strongest under such barbaric conditions. (For obvious and not so obvious reasons, fans of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken should check out Jim: The James Foley Story.)

Yet Jim: The James Foley Story is not just about James and creating a memorial to him -- although it does do that quite well. The documentary also focuses on the importance of the critical work the featured journalists do in foreign lands. Hardly motivated by money, these men and women report on the horrors in Western Asia and Northern Africa at great risk and great motivation to help others who are suffering.

But the suffering hits home as well. For Jim's parents, John Sr. and Diane, the plight of their son is unknown and they live in turmoil for nearly two years. Via email, they are in contact with his captors who seek a ransom. They try everything they can to come up with the 100 million demanded. Meanwhile the U.S. government does not lift much of a finger to help this American citizen who is being held captive without due process of law. The pain ISIS inflicts on Jim spreads out like a web of woe.

The web of woe, however, is also a web of hope and keeping the impact and memory of Jim and others alive. The gunned up thugs of ISIS think their horrific deeds will be benevolently immortalized, but who will ever give a nod of approval toward Jim's murderers? Who knows their names? Who even cares? Nobody with a shred of dignity, diligence and intelligence will miss or love them when they are gone.

Winner of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story was picked up by HBO during the festival headquartered in Park City, Utah. HBO will release the documentary this weekend.

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