While watching Beyond Borders an ancient Chinese proverb flashed through my head: Beware earnest thespians and their watery-eyed political awakenings. Angelina Jolie stars as an earnest, watery-eyed relief worker. She experienced a political awakening at an AIDS benefit in 1984 and tossed aside her frivolous life of London charity balls, but kept her white linen Katherine Hepburnish Nantucket ensemble, thank you.
She ditches her hubby and flies to Ethiopia to serve the needy, picks up a local child to cuddle, then returns to London and has a family squabble and a child of her own. When domestic life intrudes on her newfound charity, she flies to Cambodia with a new hairstyle and UN mission, and picks up a local child to cuddle. In the 1990s she visits Chechnya and we bear witness to more misery. Sadly, no Chechen children were cuddled in the making of this picture.
Once in Africa she falls for Dr. Nick (Clive Owen of Croupier), a seen-it-all humanitarian aid worker who globe-trots from crisis to crisis, always romantically depressed; their feelings cannot connect amid so much world suffering. Dr. Nick sneers at Jolie's Sarah Jordan and her bourgeois notions of altruism. When they meet she is cuddling a child she rescued from a vulture. He tells her to abandon the child. They're mad for each other, these kids. And then, an hour into this drama, there is drama. Dr. Nick is a tad shady.
But, being soul mates, Nick and Sarah travel the Earth, laying healing hands on hot zones as the hot zones themselves and their inhabitants quietly, predictably, recede into the background, much the way Africans went from subject to extras in Cry Freedom and Tears of the Sun. In the third act there is the snow-swept sacrifice of Reds and then . oh, never mind.
To knock Beyond Borders is to kick a puppy into rush-hour traffic. It is far too easy a target, far too bushy-tailed and well-meaning. It might be kitschy, self-satisfied, shameless, and na ve - the sort of stoic drama HBO misfires with on occasion - but it aspires to good old fashioned show biz social awareness.
Directed by Martin Campbell, there is an unashamed determination here to play the world's problems as a romantic backdrop to movie star liaisons that you just do not see much anymore. I would not have been surprised if Sally Struthers and David Lean had been listed in the credits as co-screenwriters and all-round inspirations.
Indeed, if you monitor the pages of Us Weekly or check in on E! - after finishing The Economist, naturally - you know Jolie's commitment here extends beyond melodrama.
She served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Here she shapes that image into a kind of Indiana Jones of the conscience without the wit, fedora, body fat, or ounce of compassion fatigue.
But like most art driven by an overt agenda - be it religious, activist, social, or even aesthetic - the art often becomes secondary and almost incidental.
Campbell and Jolie are torn between their need to balance the outraged documentarian in them with the obligations of drama, but not torn enough.
Sarah and Nick are not characters so much as speaker boxes for a variety of issues concerning humanitarian aid workers. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that they need to establish personalities before we can connect with their plight, and the effect is exploitative; their romance comes off entirely arbitrary, a vehicle for shuttling soul mates from one Third World spot to another. In contrast, seek out Michael Winterbottom's In This World. It tells the adventure of two Afghan refugees from the inside out; they're real people first, which makes their story (and the issue of war refugees) all the more vital. The filmmakers behind Beyond Borders are like earnest activists who say if their message reaches just one person it'll be worth it. They should be careful what they wish for.