Welcome to Sarajevo

In Welcome to Sarajevo (Miramax), a British TV journalist crosses the line between observer and activist when he smuggles a little orphan girl out of war-ravaged Bosnia to live with him and his family in London. The plot is loosely based on true stories, particularly those of British journalist Michael Nicholson (here called Michael Henderson and played with world-weary integrity by stage actor Stephen Dillane), who wrote a book about his relationship with young Natasha (here called Emira and played with dignity by then-10-year-old Sarajevo-born Emira Nusevic). The facts of the awful siege of Sarajevo, which began in 1992 and dragged on through 1995, are well-known. The news footage we see — of politicians making empty assertions, of broken bodies — is real.

Welcome to Sarajevo, then, is advocacy filmmaking at its most inarguable: People! For God’s sake, even if you’re insane about killing one another, at least save these innocent, terrified, tragic children! is the impassioned howl from director Michael Winterbottom (Jude), working with a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce. But if it were just that — an easy jab to the conscience, a trendy exercise in hand-wringing now that the damage has been done — this well-made drama would not be as affecting a movie as it is.

The power comes from Winterbottom’s rigorous sense of storytelling, which manages to show and tell terrible tales without telegraphing emotionalism. A smart soundtrack in sharp counterpoint to the misery also helps: Bobby McFerrin sings ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy”; the Rolling Stones’ ”Waiting on a Friend” blares through one scene of great shock.

And, as if in response, an international supporting cast turns in mature performances: Croatian actor Goran Visnjic brings the depth of authenticity to his role as Henderson’s driver; Marisa Tomei is blessedly grown-up as an aid worker; New Zealander Kerry Fox (Shallow Grave) gracefully conveys exhaustion, ambition, and compassion as Henderson’s producer.

But the really bracing energy in this show comes from Woody Harrelson as Flynn, a roving American journalist as hooked as any junkie on the highs of war correspondence. Stalking danger in baggy shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, risking his life (and ensuring great TV) by helping to move the body of a woman shot dead by snipers, partying hard, Flynn represents all the moral ambiguities of news journalism rolled into one fearless, rootless cowboy, and Harrelson rips into the role with ease and even wisdom. Told at a press conference by some powerless international observer or other that Sarajevo is only the ”14th worst place on earth,” Flynn dares to react to the lunacy, asking whether the place is going up or down on the charts. If Henderson is the heart of Welcome to Sarajevo, Flynn is its soul. Together, they’re persuasive proof that war reporting is, truly, hell. A-

Welcome to Sarajevo
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