When veteran Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl traveled to Pakistan, he had resolved this would be his final assignment abroad. Assassins ensured the integrity of Pearl's intentions. Wartime journalism is a perilous profession, but it is essential to keeping us informed, and without information there is no hope at all that journalists can ever set their watches in an era that is not wartime.
Forty-eight journalists were killed a decade ago covering the campaign of ethnic purification conducted by Slobadan Milosevic, the Serbian leader currently on trial for war crimes. "It wasn't fighting," claims a photographer in Harrison's Flowers, about the violence he finds himself recording. "It was extermination." Set amid the Balkan savagery in 1991, the film tells the story of fierce love triumphant over ferocious destruction. It celebrates the courage and tenacity of those who bring the bitter news. "Take your photos!" shouts a fleeing Croatian to a newcomer with a camera barging into burning rubble. "They must know." That is the motive for the combat correspondent and for a wrenching screenplay concocted out of recent events.
Harrison's Flowers begins amid suburban serenity; a loving husband and wife and two adorable children occupy a house that might deserve a spread in House & Garden. In a garden is the greenhouse that is the husband's special joy and the immediate reference for the movie's title.
Writer-director Elie Chouraqui plants the arcadian opening of Harrison's Flowers to set us up for shocks to come. Sarah Lloyd is an editor at Newsweek, and her husband, Harrison (Strathairn), is its ace photographer, the dapper winner of a Pulitzer and the envy of grubby, unsung picture-shooters. When Harrison is ordered overseas, he accepts the assignment reluctantly, insisting that this will be his final foreign posting. Think of all those movies in which hell breaks loose during a retiring cop's last day on the job. Think of Daniel Pearl.
After Harrison arrives in Bosnia, he is trapped in the escalating ethnic violence. Word of his death reaches Newsweek headquarters in New York, yet fury more than grief takes hold of Sarah. "But no one is dead!" she shouts, dispersing the mourners gathered for a Kaddish service organized without a corpse. Convinced that Harrison is still alive, Sarah flies off alone to retrieve him. Within hours of her arrival, her Croatian escort is summarily shot and she is beaten and nearly raped. Yet, despite landmines, snipers, roadblocks, and hunger, Sarah soldiers on, determined to reach Vukovar, where her husband, she believes, is held. Her Newsweek boss believes: "She's off her rocker," and a viewer might agree.
Three foreign photojournalists attempt to dissuade her from what seems a suicidal mission. However, Sarah's stubborn pluck reminds them of their own, and the four are soon traveling together — by car, foot, and belly — through an inferno into Vukovar. "We were walking straight into the darkness," says Harrison's best friend, Yeager Pollack (Koteas), who keeps his camera clicking throughout the journey. Harrison's Flowers shines klieg lights on the horrors of the Balkan wars.
In the immediacy of the abominations, the film is a European version of The Killing Fields. But in one woman's obdurate insistence on retrieving her beloved from perdition (a reversal of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth), Harrison's Flowers echoes Not Without My Daughter, in which Sally Field manages to extricate her child from the Koranic dungeon that Iran had become. This is not just a love story cynically soldered on to a spectacle of soldiers run amuck, but rather an account of elemental conflict between Venus and Mars, love and war. Can Harrison's flowers outpower Milosevic's tanks?
Andie MacDowell brings unexpected intensity to her portrait of Sarah. Particularly vivid is Adrien Brody's turn as Kyle Morris, a high-strung, coke-sniffing photographer whose witness to barbarity has brought him to the brink of nihilism. "There's no bad guys, there's no good guys," insists Kyle, but he and we relearn the validity of moral categories. Sarah's devotion to Harrison averts Kyle from the abyss. "We better both pray that someday we find somebody that loves us the way that she loves him," he advises Yeager. Along with a Brit named Marc Stevenson (Gleason), the three push on toward Vukovar, making a record of the gruesome sights they encounter along the way.
Out of dark-room negatives comes something positive. According to Yeager: "Photographs comprise the communal memory of our time." So, too, do motion pictures. Chouraqui's film provides testimony to atrocity but also to the irenic power of Harrison's flowers.