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IN SHORT: Human despair with a much too heavy wash of soap opera. [Rated R for language and war related violence. 125 minutes]
Are you old enough to remember Band Aid? The "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single by Bob Geldof, whose trip to Ethiopia kicked off a groundswell of rock and roll do-good-ness which culminated in Live Aid? Perhaps you only remember the festival for the music and went out to get a beer when the "political" or "educational" moments hit the tube between acts. Perhaps you missed it and wish that there had been a live album (which is never going to happen, even though we know where the tapes are since we worked the whole megillah. But that's a whole 'nother story).
Beginning just before Band Aid in 1984 is Director Martin Campbell's Beyond Borders is a different side of the story, slathered in a soap opera wash that treads so dangerously close to one step over the line, roll your eyes and groan melodrama that only the brutality inherent in three dramatic setups involving war and famine keep everything on an even keel. Sort of. When Beyond Borders does cross the line it does so big time, reaching a point of emotionally hysterical overkill near the end. Then something really unexpected happens.
Phase one begins in 1984, as a London ballroom full of black tie garbed rich people pat themselves on the back for twenty years of helping the hungry. We meet newlywed Sarah Jordan Bauford (Angelina Jolie) showing off her husband Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), whose family is loaded, to newsreporter sister Charlotte (Teri Polo). The party is crashed by one Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) and an emaciated, starving Ethiopian boy called JoJo. Callahan, either a demented or totally self-righteous refugee rights activist, uses the occasion to rub the richnik's nose in their smug satisfaction of hands-off do-good-ness. The appearance shocks Sarah into teary-eyed action. She liquidates her bank accounts and raises a total of $40,000 to buy food for the starving. To make sure it gets to Callahan's refugee camp -- 30,000 strong -- she leaves hubby behind and goes along. In Ethiopia, she's a dumb white girl in a place she doesn't belong, where her actions piss off both the local government and rebel soldiers. Sarah spends only a few days in Ethiopia, meeting Nick's compatriots Elliot Hauser (Noah Emmerich), Kat (Kate Ashfield) and Joss (Jamie Bartlett). There's an "electricity" around her and Nick, but she is a married woman. Returning to London a different person, she takes a job with a UN agency.
Phase two is in 1989, with first child Jimmy (John Gausden) bouncing on the beds. Otherwise, her marriage is crumbling. When Elliot reappears seeking a UN stamp of approval on a shipment of medicine to embattled Cambodia where a Communist government battles Communist Khmer Rouge rebels, the latter some of the blood thirstiest killers on the planet at the time. Not only does Sarah stamp away, she goes along for the ride, leaving the family behind. At the border, though, government soldiers discover weapons hidden among the medicines -- part of a deal with the devil Nick has made with CIA operative Jan Steiger (Yorick Van Wageningen). Here the film mixes betrayal, intimidation, brutality and murder with a "save your butt and run for the borders" bug out from a Khmer battalion set on slaughtering all of 'em. Oh, yeah, Nick is still there and, well, if you're going to die tomorrow and you know your husband is cheating on you, hey, any port in a storm.
By 1995 Sara is the spokesperson for the UN Agency. She and the husband still keep up appearances and tend to both Jimmy and a new daughter, Anna (Isabelle Horler). With war and strife in Chechnya making all the headlines, you know where "got to take care of the refugees 'cuz it's my job" Nick is going to be. With a sister in the newsgame, Sara seeks word of her "friend." She gets it and it's not good. Off she goes again, leaving the kidlets behind.
Sorry, don't buy it. If you're going to spend your life in hell-on-earth, you don't make babies. If you do make babies, you take care of them. Early on, the film makes a point of showing the starving mothers in Ethiopia cry out for their babies. Sarah learns nothing from this? It's all a set up for the oldest soap opera bait and switch in the book. If you fall into sympathy with a teary eyed Jolie early in the film, you'll be more in line with this film than we were.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Beyond Borders, he would have paid . . .
Soap opera this heavy belongs on the PPV teevee screen. That being said, the most important to make is that the kind of refugee poverty you see again and again in the film is an ongoing problem all across the world. Geldof went back to Ethiopia in September (2003) and it's all back to square one. Jolie now works for the UN for real. We doubt that she'd mind if you'd rather give your ten spot to a care organization instead of buying a ticket.
Feed the world.
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