Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker cemented one image of the contemporary American soldier in the public consciousness: the adrenaline junkie who thrives on the excitement of war and has become completely alienated from the quotidian routine of civilian life. But might that description apply equally well to the journalists dedicated to chronicling the seemingly endless proliferation of armed conflicts that crop up around the world? Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, Martyn Burke’s aesthetically dubious but frequently fascinating documentary about the stresses of being a war reporter, suggests that it does. Built around a series of interviews with journalists active and retired as well as a smattering of the footage that they shot, Burke’s film unfolds a gallery of shell-shocked newspapermen and women, many of them suffering PTSD-induced nightmares, an inability to sustain human relationships, and a sense of guilt both over their fallen colleagues and the fact that they require death and suffering to make their living.
Under Fire never sidesteps the thorny issues of a journalist’s ethical responsibility—using as a particularly incisive case a photographer’s famous still of a starving boy in an African refugee camp who he chose not to help—and features no shortage of gripping, anguished testimonials from its subjects. Whether it’s Jon Steele of the U.K. outlet ITN describing his compulsive need to be sent to dangerous places or Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times relating his gnawing guilt at having shot a picture of Somali loyalists dragging a U.S. Army officer’s corpse through the streets of Mogadishu, the film conveys a keen sense of the edgy, perpetually self-critical mindset that dogs journos working in increasingly dangerous and morally dubious environments.
And yet, by confining his focus strictly to the journalists, Burke tends to place an undue emphasis on first-world psychological suffering to the detriment of the genuine physical misery being undergone by these reporters’ subjects. All of which would be fine—after all, the writers and photographers are the project’s focus—if the film didn’t use real footage of suffering humanity strictly to outline the anguish of the journalists. In fact, the movie is awash in an overload of flashy visual techniques (a funhouse-mirror visual distortion to suggest the subjects’ alienation, a need to constantly fill the screen with text that reiterates bits of dialogue) that are more distracting than pernicious. That is, until one reporter’s description of his PTSD is “augmented” by pop-up images of starving African children. At such moments the tricky ethical balance of the journalist that the film had been dedicated to exploring is breached by the filmmaker himself. As the poor child howls away on screen en route to an almost certain death, he becomes just one more illustration of the white man’s anguish at having to cover the very suffering that remains a daily fact of life for much of the world’s population.