Good Night, and Good Luck Dodging the Sniper Fire

Marcel Ophüls is smiling. Did Slobodan Milosevic just say something funny?
Milestone Films

"Stay away from CNN." Those were among Colin Powell's first words of advice to Bush during the plotting of the invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps the president recalled the warning while Anderson Cooper discovered his manhood in the flooded bayou, shouting in outrage that the government had betrayed the people, or when, a few days ago, the cable news outlets saw fit to point out that the Q&A session between Bush and American soldiers was staged (as if that were a novel occurrence...). Just as Bush's lockdown of the American press seems to be unraveling, the Bell is screening Marcel Ophüls's long essay-movie The Troubles We've Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime. Though the movie takes many hours to restate things we already knew, there's still a terrible shock in hearing a French cameraman tell us that his country's military was worse than our own when it came to hiding the events of the Gulf War from public view: "The Americans would tell us, 'Don't cover such-and-such operation,' but it wasn't like they staged these...idiot tank movements for us!" Ophüls's great theme is the complicity of good people with the fatal iceberg drifts of history, and here the idealistic journalists we meet are blocked by every form of pressure: commercial interests from above, office politicking from their peers, sniper bullets outside their hotel windows.

I am always sympathetic to a new film by the creator of The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), The Memory of Justice (1976), and Hotel Terminus (1988), but the first half of The Troubles We've Seen made me sure Ophüls had lost his marbles. The director's earlier films are often accused of being scattershot, and here, for a good while at least, Ophüls responds to those criticisms by living up to them. He takes so long to frame the central question of his argument, and wanders off on so many whimsical tangents, that the movie comes to feel like a parody of one of Jean-Luc Godard's late works, where art history, politics, aphorisms, and sex blur together like Monet's series of haystacks. Shipping off to Sarajevo with his crew, Ophüls photographs rain smearing a windshield as Bing Crosby croons "Holiday Inn"--for well over a minute. Not-especially-funny snippets of Duck Soup and Annie Hall abut the veteran correspondent Martha Gellhorn sneering, "I think war correspondents are privileged and shouldn't be glorified." Puckish and gnomish, the tonsured Ophüls inserts himself into the action much like the frizzy-haired Godard does in his recent work, playing the nutty professor interrogating the bloody id of 20th-century history.

Only...what is Ophüls asking, exactly? A Serbian pop star, in one particularly pointless scene, stands in front of a whiteboard scrawled with obscene gags while reciting a nationalist jingle that's "supposed to be a capella." Maybe the nadir of Ophüls's capricious, incoherent style comes as he sits on the phone (chatting, it seems, with his producers) while a hooker from the former Yugoslav republic lies splayed naked on his bed. Ophüls, still talking, doffs his hat to her. Did Ophüls's relationship with his "very good friend, Woody Allen" rub off? The effect is like watching Larry King enter a Fellini bordello fantasia.

Luckily, the second half finds Ophüls back on his meds and up to the kind of associative yet disciplined filmmaking that is his trademark. In one dazzling sequence, an upper-middle-class reporter laments that television networks refuse to pay for armored cars for their correspondents--a fair enough complaint. A second or so later, Paul Marchand, a paparazzo-type war reporter who smokes cigars and appears to be 12 years old, snorts, "Now they want armored cars. Tomorrow a bodyguard! After that, army protection!" In typical Ophüls fashion, a new point of view opens up: Maybe these journalists aren't self-sacrificing heroes, but pampered bourgeois hoping to stay close to the hotel bar. Opinions dilate like kaleidoscopes: Another French reporter muses, "Reporters are anxious people, they're insecure; conflicts are therapy because they quiet their inner conflicts." The essayist Alain Finkelkraut, surrounded by an implacable library of white books, claims that a certain Katie Couric-like French anchorwoman invented "the dogma of equidistance" surrounding the Bosnian horrors, even when military personnel were shelling a city, destroying monuments, murdering civilians. And we are introduced to what Ophüls calls "the lunching journalists"--the repeaters of official press releases who cherish their "senior sources," a phylum of witness well known to readers of Judith Miller (among countless others).

The most appalling sequences in The Troubles unmask the French intellectuals who used Sarajevo as a pedestal for their existential psychodramas. That Renaissance man Bernard-Henri Levy is shown thinking deep thoughts as bullets fly around him: "This is not the first war I have been to, but it is the first city under siege." As usual, Levy turns the plumes of smoke surrounding a ruin into a pensive puff from an unfiltered Gauloise (and it's suggested that some of the footage in Levy's own documentary work was shot after the hairy stuff went down). Ophüls roughly interrogates the film director Romain Goupil, who seems to be using the conflict as a metaphor for a recent tragically soured romance. Here Ophüls shows his best side: highbrow Mike Wallace. He lambastes French reporters who marry cabinet ministers to cement their permanent state of access, making one think immediately of the unbiased reporting of Andrea Mitchell, a.k.a. Mrs. Alan Greenspan. Ophüls leapfrogs from one subject to another with lightning ease, using Golden Age film quotes with subtle wit--as when a Sarajevo actor, his legs lost in a land-mine explosion, vows to return to the stage, cuing Jimmy Cagney's rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway."

Ophüls does seem to be losing some of his old acuity. He attacks a woman for depicting Serbian women heroically, saying, "I am a Jew, and I like Jews to be resistance fighters," as if their two biases were an equivalent his-and-hers set. This declaration sends us into a sequence in which Ophüls and a journalist look at footage from the Palestinian Intifada, with the reporter claiming that Israeli soldiers are "remarkably well-behaved." (Uh...compared to whom?) There's also an uncomfortable moment when Ophüls blithely tells a female reporter, "Some would say you don't lack balls because you don't have any." This is meant to be a feminist statement, but Ophüls's subject blinks in bafflement (or disgruntlement) regardless. The Troubles swerves and totters, but it gets at an exciting gray area, the place where the need to pay the bills and the urgency to tell the whole story collide. Just make sure you enter the theater right after intermission.

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