Yugoslav thriller hunts for answers
On a sinister-looking mountain road on the border of Montenegro, Richard Gere sits brooding - his perpetually squinting eyes squinting over some deep truths about war. This is the description of most frames of Richard Shepard's latest film "The Hunting Party." Somewhere between a black comedy and a journalistic action flick, the kiddie coaster of a thrill ride tries to offer up a biting indictment of the international community's culpability in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But what it underlines more effectively is the machismo ethic at work in war correspondence.
The story plays out like a comic book. Young buck Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg from "The Squid and the Whale") is in Sarajevo, Bosnia, covering the five-year anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords, the agreement that brokered the end of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslav republic. Chaperoning the green Harvard graduate is Duck (Terrence Howard), a seasoned cameraman. What should have been a simple story is broken up with the arrival of Simon (Richard Gere), Duck's old partner who discredited himself and his network when he had a mental breakdown on live television. Simon's got a drinking problem, but he has a story as well - he knows where one of Bosnia's most vile war criminals is hiding.
What begins as a search for an interview soon turns into a revenge-filled search for the capture of The Fox, a paramilitary leader based on the real-life criminal Radovan Karadzic. The film is inspired by a story that journalist Scott Anderson wrote for Esquire in 2001. Anderson and four other war correspondents went searching for Karadzic and, in the process, were mistaken by a U.N. official and a Serbian secret policeman as a CIA hit squad. This amusing case of confused identity rolls along with the mood of Anderson's story, but cuts away from the action, and reality, in the last 20 minutes of the film.
Without divulging any spoilers in print, some things need to be clarified about the situation regarding war criminals in Bosnia. Shepard and Anderson point to some real problems concerning the prosecution of individuals charged with crimes against humanity during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. But Shepard points a lot of fingers and explains little.
The United Nations is displayed as a bunch of inept bureaucrats who can't - or won't - carry out their mission of capturing war criminals like Karadzic. This portrayal isn't far from the truth. Papers in Serbia and Bosnia are often filled with sightings of these individuals - such a headline was the inspiration for Anderson's original search. Whereabouts are rumored, if not known. But more chilling is the portrayal of war correspondents.
Duck and Simon move through the film like they're John Rambos with press credentials. Indeed, one of the thematic clips that shows throughout the film is Chuck Norris with his M-16 blaring from 1984's "Missing in Action."
Shepard told Rotten Tomatoes that the clip was tongue-in-cheek, that "The Hunting Party" was supposed to be cutting away from those big action sequences. Simon and Duck show fear visibly every time a gun appears, but this fear is coupled with an adrenaline-rush attitude. To quote Simon's character, "Putting your life in danger is actual living - the rest is just television."
Television or not, journalism isn't action heroics, and it isn't attempting to capture war criminals either. The real strength of "The Hunting Party" isn't its humor - the jokes are simple - but its implications of the pitfalls of modern conflict coverage. Choosing sides can get you into messy situations, like a backwoods shack in Republika Srpska in the company of a sadist with a penchant for hatchets.