In Elie Chouraqui's compelling new film Harrison's Flowers, the life of a war photojournalist doesn't just contain hints of peril; it's depicted as a task tantamount to serving as a soldier on the front lines of war. In this case, the parallel isn't constructed as a metaphor -- it's offered as stark reality.
Set at the beginning of the 1990s, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Harrison Floyd (David Straithairn) has reached a pinnacle. He is revered by professional associates and enjoys the unconditional love of his wife, Sarah (Andie MacDowell), and their two young children. He appears on his way to career burnout though, a point hammered home at an awards banquet, when he presents the Pulitzer Prize to his best friend and fellow photojournalist Yeager (Elias Koteas). That night, Harrison is confronted by an angry, young photographer, Kyle (Adrien Brody), who tears into the man for taking the path of least resistance to find fame, while his journalist brethren are literally dying for their work on personal assignments in dangerous territories.
Such territories are just what Harrison is on his way to encounter when Newsweek, where Sarah works as a photo editor, assigns him to cover one final combat assignment: The rising "skirmishes" in Croatia. Shortly after his arrival, the people who sent him on this mission learn that the supposed minor battles have given way to a full scale Civil War, which they think has claimed Harrison as a casualty.
Unable to accept this information and believing that she has spotted Harrison on a news broadcast, Sarah embarks on a gravely treacherous journey to locate her husband. Coming face to face with conditions unimaginable in her worst nightmares, Sarah's horrific plight is aided when she unexpectedly meets up with Kyle, and his Irish colleague Stevenson (Brendan Gleeson). Yeager learns of Sarah's actions and also travels to Croatia to help. As a group, armed only with cameras, they continue the quest to reach Harrison, and in the process become witness to unspeakable atrocities in the depths of a literal hell-on-earth.
Harrison's Flowers succeeds on two major levels: Personalizing the tragedies of war and properly framing individual concerns in the larger context of massive human devastation. Chouraqui imbues the two worlds that comprise the film with vastly different visual styles -- the chaos of war captured by a jittery handheld camera, while smooth Steadicam shots and static compositions frame the relative normalcy of the Newsweek office. The result is richly atmospheric and deeply jarring.
Adrien Brody does a magnificent job of injecting range into his outcast character, which easily could have fallen prey to textbook conventions. Andie Macdowell is adequate in the lead role, but as the film progresses, the focus broadens and wisely doesn't ask any individual character to carry the load. Chouraqui makes no bones about his chief concern, and his treatment of the subject of war so carefully and thoughtfully avoids any traces of cinematic sensationalism. Only minutes after our first glimpse of terror in this ravaged country, we want out.
However, I'm disappointed by the film's conclusion. It has a false ring to it and isn't worthy of the movie which precedes it. After everything Chouraqui subjects his audience to, it feels like a cop-out, and it troubled me to the point where I considered reducing my rating by another half-star. But, after some debate, I find it justifiable to partially turn a blind eye.
Harrison's Flowers distinguishes itself as an engrossing, moving account of the strength of the human will overcoming the direst of circumstances. And those circumstances are portrayed in a purely genuine and gripping manner that speaks volumes about the humanity of the artist behind this creation.