Film theme recalls Pearl ordeal

Fictional account of journalist's disappearance has 'unbelievable' timing

— Sometimes movies that explore current events coincide with real-life headlines more closely than the filmmakers expected.

In the new drama "Harrison's Flowers," which was filmed two years ago but opened Friday, a journalist disappears while covering a volatile region, and his wife tries to save him. Though few details are the same, for many viewers now the theme calls to mind the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.


AP Photo

French film director Elie Chouraqui holds a Leica rangefinder camera during an interview at his hotel in Century City area of Los Angeles. In Chouraqui's latest film, "Harrison's Flowers," the story line bears similarity with the death of Daniel Pearl, a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was killed while on assignment in Pakistan.

Dangers facing war correspondents are regularly in the news. Journalists have been threatened and eight have been killed in Afghanistan since October, and a news photographer was slain in the West Bank this week.

Elie Chouraqui, the French director of the fictional "Harrison's Flowers," called its timing "unbelievable." He said he embarked on the film a few years ago because he wanted to raise awareness of the dangers journalists faced in war zones.

"You just know you want to do something, to tell a certain story, and it's important to do it right away."

Sometimes the coincidence of a movie's theme and current events draws people to the film; sometimes it causes them to shy away.

Perhaps the most uncanny timing in film history came in 1979 when the nuclear-meltdown thriller "The China Syndrome" opened in theaters 12 days before the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa.

One character in the movie says a mistake at a nuclear plant could create fallout that would "render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable."

"You just heard a gasp from the audience when they heard that line," said the movie's co-screenwriter, Mike Gray, a journalist who later covered the Three Mile Island accident. The accident "transformed 'The China Syndrome' from a Hollywood thriller into a docudrama."

Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent "Collateral Damage," about a firefighter seeking revenge for a terrorist bombing, was delayed more than four months after Sept. 11. Its opening last month drew attention because of the terrorism angle, but attendance tapered off quickly.

"The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962 was withheld from release for decades after it debuted only weeks before the murder of President Kennedy. Star Frank Sinatra felt it would be insensitive to show the movie because it detailed a communist conspiracy to assassinate a politician. The film was released again in 1987.

The political comedy "Primary Colors," about a sex scandal dogging the presidential campaign of a Clinton-like governor, opened in March 1998 amid the more sensational frenzy of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Box-office returns were lukewarm because audiences were weary of political scandal, said actor Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman who played a campaign official in "Primary Colors."

"We were competing with the evening news," he said. "Day after day, week after week, reality became a bit more tawdry and controversial than anything in the film. Real events overtook the drama."

In "Wag the Dog," that same year, the president fabricates a war to divert attention from a sex scandal. When President Clinton ordered missile attacks against Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, three days after confessing to his relationship with the White House intern, some critics called it a "Wag the Dog" ploy.

In "Harrison's Flowers," Andie MacDowell plays the journalist wife of a magazine photographer (David Strathairn) who disappears while covering Croatia's war for independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. (The movie's release also coincides with Slobodan Milosevic's war-crimes trial.)

Officials tell MacDowell's character that her husband has died, but she doesn't believe it and travels to the center of the battle to search for him.

In its review, The Associated Press said the movie is more of a romance than a serious exploration of the issues facing foreign correspondents � "less of a movie with a political statement to make than a love story with heartstrings to tug."

The release date for "Harrison's Flowers" wasn't changed after Pearl was killed and ads make no mention of him. But the movie's Web site includes a page on the history of journalists in wartime.

Pearl's case makes the movie "more important, much more relevant than it would have been without this real-life counterpart," said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book "Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film."

Chouraqui hopes the movie will draw more attention to the heroism of war correspondents like Pearl.

"Without these people risking their lives we would not know what happens in the world," he said.


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