Comparisons between Pakistan’s high-profile Bhutto family and the Kennedys are not, for once, myopically occidental floundering; both came from money and prestige that were leveraged into national power, both were largely sheltered from the stresses that defined citizenry in their respective socio-cultural environments, and both, once in stations of influence, led largely by emancipated example and inspirational vision rather than actual legislation. Both JFK and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were arguably their homelands’ premiere 20th-century political media celebrities, so it’s no surprise that their martyrdom has been duly hallowed—even if the circumstances surrounding their deaths remain convoluted by crisscrossing motives, clandestine vendettas, and still-closeted skeletons.
Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara’s Benazir Bhutto hardly shies away from this analogy, or from other less convincing attempts to make the Middle-Eastern titans accessible to Western audiences. (Playing Cat Stevens while discussing the woman’s late-1960s education at Radcliffe is fair enough, but when social butterfly husband Asif Ali Zardari is introduced via snazzily animated photographs atop a flourish of Superfly horns, we feel an uncomfortable gap between the film’s subject and the mood-enhancing semiotics being employed.) Still, much of what’s questionable about this documentarian approach also provides the movie’s value as a piece of cultural enlightenment, as the nearly two-hour timeline maintains an admirably unflagging, and entertaining, focus on dramatic familial exploits. Aside from the Kennedys, the Bhuttos also become the descendants of Oedipus and King Lear, with Prime Minister-cum-patriarch Zulfikar Ali cast as the comparatively populist if fatally flawed father. We follow every move that Benazir’s publicist would want us to be aware of from birth to election to exile to assassination; it’s a comprehensive yet candy-coated crash course in Pakistani politics with only occasional hints at the corruption and fundamentalism that have continually ravaged the country’s lower class.
A particularly telling anecdote from Benazir’s young adulthood describes how her father forbade her from wearing a burqa after being deeply disturbed by the sight of her obscured visage; as a result of this epiphany, no Bhutto females since have donned the traditional garb, and Benazir’s potential as a feminist sex symbol was enabled. And indeed, her relentless headshots, with wide sunglasses and pursed strawberry lips jutting out from a virginal headscarf, are imbued with an almost Liz Taylor pulchritude. But while this image attractively challenges Islam’s repressive, misogynistic dogma in spirit, Baughman and O’Hara aren’t explicit enough about how it might have changed the national conversation about distaff corporeality. (Don’t such glamour portraits present a fantasy to Pakistani girls just as unattainable as that of any emaciated but full-breasted U.S. model toward acne-ridden, suburban adolescent in the midst of menarche?)
As the terminally gush-happy talking heads—such as Christina Lamb, Condoleezza Rice, and Mark Siegel—make clear, however, Benazir was more of an icon than a strategist, a problematic distinction that plagued all of the Bhuttos; for all the rhetorical advantages the film gives to Zulfikar and Benazir, in many respects it reveals their ineffectiveness at pushing reform past the conservative, ex-military presidents they served beside. (Zulfikar, whose darker dealings are never excavated, seemed to understand democracy more as a buzzword than an actual attempt at practical egalitarianism, while Benazir’s ultimate undoing was her inability to make the war on terror seem like anything but an attack against Islam, despite the strides she accomplished in her second term.) Commentator Tariq Ali, perpetually clutching what appears to be a ceramic neti pot, and outspoken Bhutto opponent and ex-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, provide some semblance of antithesis, but it can’t combat the effusive praise lobbed toward Benazir’s person elsewhere; many of the interviews seem more like star-struck ranting, however eloquent, rather than a plausible case for canonization.
This obvious bias allows Bhutto to succeed beautifully as a kind of protracted CNN-style elegy: All the key points are alighted upon and no sensitive buttons are fingered. But we’re left with the realization that while Benazir’s guise of liberated femininity helped Pakistan crawl a few more inches towards civilized sexuality, it’s going to take an army of Mehrangiz Kar-like activists to achieve palpable change.