Taking "Third World"-themed potshots at Angelina Jolie's globetrotting bodice-ripper, Beyond Borders, is much like her character's attempt to feed one computer-enhanced starving child--satisfying at first, but ultimately insufficient.Of course, there's plenty to mock: the eye-rollingly obvious clash between Jolie's fashion-model bone structure and the fly-caked ribcages of starving refugees; a romance as underdeveloped as the countries in which it takes place; the film's unsuccessful efforts to inoculate itself from charges of noblesse oblige by taking unsubtle swipes at the guilty first-worlders to which it panders. In one belligerently meaningful scene, an anonymous wit in crowd of black-tie bigwigs tosses a banana at an ethiopian child. Not subtle enough? Not to worry: hot-blooded doctor sans frontiere Nick Callahan helpfully points out the parallel between the boy (named Jojo--as in the dancing bear) and the monkey to which he accuses the crowd of comparing him.Beyond Borders has put critics from all sides in a snit. In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell called it a "liberal video game." Salon's Stephanie Zacharek notes that the doomed couple it portrays is attractive enough without using "the suffering children of the world as accessories." But the Web site of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wins the metaphorical scoff-off by commenting that "Director Martin Campbell's film suffers from severe narrative malnutrition, with characters less fleshed out than the famine victims they champion."Like so many cultural products in our reality-challenged era, however, the meaty stories about Beyond Borders take place outside the screen.While the involvement of the hunky doctor Callahan with a shady CIA operative may satisfy cynics' views of global heroics, real-life aid workers have found the depiction less-than-helpful to their work. The Guardian's Nick Cater reports that critics are condemning Kofi Annan for implicitly endorsing the flick by appearing at its New York premiere.Another interesting note: the film's jarring recreation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Kevin Carter, which depicts a Sudanese refugee girl being eyed by a nearby vulture. As Seattle Weekly's Brian Miller writes, "he had chased away the vulture, then watched the child rejoin the endless procession of refugees (many of whom would surely die, he knew, despite what efforts he or any foreign aid workers might've made), but he couldn't save himself from the subsequent guilt…. Go ahead--make a movie about that." Of course, in Beyond Borders, Jolie's character is able to swoop in and rescue the child, white desert-wear flowing like angel wings.Finally, Jolie's own highly public transformation, from tattooed, blood-toting bad girl to re-virginized mother and goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, provides a familiar and potent parable. Her story is ripe for deconstruction by a new generation of women's studies grad students, who may also want to consider the ultimate message of Beyond Borders: adventuresome infidelity with dangerous, passionate men may literally blow up in your face.
Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).