When Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Cheadle, and George Clooney all show up in the same frame in Darfur Now, the latest documentary guilt-tripper in this most politically studious of cinema times, you half think you’re watching Ocean’s Fourteen. The scene revolves around the Governator’s eventual passing of the crucial divestment bill that would cease business involvement with Sudan, whose government is responsible for the deaths of 200,000 and displacement of 2.5 million in Darfur. Apparently this harrowing bunch of details couldn’t sustain a documentary of its own without big stars (you can just hear some white Hollywood-type dealmaker bellowing, “We need to put some stars into it!”), and now it seems every documentary to be released must have at least one Oscar-nominee in it to survive the overcrowded multiplexes. Despite the picture’s noble intentions and blessedly non-aggressive approach to a very strong subject, there’s very little here you couldn’t learn from a casual glance at Time magazine now and then, and its 99 minutes could have easily been about 65 if you removed all of the celebrity do-gooder filler.
It’s the details you cannot read about, namely how a peaceful-seeming band of communities have had their lives turned inside out and their spirit broken by a regime that cannot seem to be effectively curtailed, that give this feature its leverage. However, by splintering off into six separate points of view—including that of a young UCLA grad who wants to make a notable contribution, an International Criminal Court prosecutor, and a farmer now forced to organize the displaced Darfurians—the doc immediately becomes too remedial and blandly informative. Some of the stories are illuminating, such as a West Darfur mother’s cross to the rebel side after her three-month-old son is beaten to death on her back, and the prosecutor’s tale will make a great feature of its own someday. The film’s idea that everyone pitching in all over the world can create a unified, “we are the world” result is one that’s hard to argue with, but many in its intended audience (the choir, in this case) will wonder why they shouldn’t just donate their $11 to a Darfur-related cause and call it a day.