THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Beyond Borders opens in the mid-80’s when young newlywed Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie) attends an expensive charity dinner to raise money for starving children in third world countries. In bursts an uninvited guest: Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), a doctor who provides medical attention to the starving and sick. He makes a rather impassioned (albeit somewhat melodramatic) speech lambasting the attendees for using a tragedy as an excuse to throw a lavish party. Sarah is moved to tears, and before long she is gathering up several thousand dollars to donate to relief efforts. She accompanies the supplies her money buys to Africa, where Callahan immediately makes fun of her for showing up in a snazzy white outfit and reeking of perfume.

Sarah returns home after an eye-opening stay. Some time later, she offers her assistance again. This time, she meets up with Callahan in Cambodia. The situation here is fraught with danger. In fact, some of the supplies are hijacked at gunpoint. During her stay, Sarah finds herself falling love with Nick. (The film justifies their romance by having Sarah discover her husband’s infidelities.) When she returns back home to London, Sarah tries to forget Nick after he shuns her, saying their affair would be “too dangerous”. But when she learns that he has gone missing while providing relief in Chechnya, she runs off to find him.

I really like the story of the doctor in Beyond Borders. Nick Callahan is a guy who is very dedicated to saving people in the most impoverished and war-torn areas of the world. There’s a very interesting subplot in which Nick is approached by a CIA agent who offers extra supplies and money, provided weapons are smuggled in with them. Nick initially declines, but later on he has to decide whether or not to make a deal with the devil. There’s a great scene where he tells Sarah that agreeing to the plan will allow him to save more people. She counters by saying that if he’s caught, it could have a negative impact on future relief workers trying to bring supplies to the area. Clive Owen (Croupier) is very good as the no-nonsense doctor committed to his cause. He plays Callahan with three dimensions, not all of them nice. This is not your typical saintly portrayal of a relief worker. The character wants to do good, but he’s also angry about the situations that create the need.

That’s some solid stuff, but as I see it, there are two fundamental problems with the film. The first is that the character of Sarah Jordan is woefully underdeveloped. In the early scenes, Sarah seems like nothing more than a bleeding-heart liberal who volunteers to calm her own guilty conscience. That would have been fine had we seen the character grow, but we do not. Her supposed passion never comes across. I never once believed she volunteered for anything other than selfish reasons. The story wants us to believe that she develops a deep commitment to the cause. In actuality, it seems like she volunteers simply so she can keep seeing this guy she fell in love with. That miscalculation costs the film dearly.

The other problem (equally, if not more significant) is that the movie takes a very serious subject and reduces it to pure melodrama. It wants to show how dangerous it can be to work in these places. To do that, a significant supporting character has to be killed. However, it has to be someone who’s important to the plot, but not so important that the movie couldn’t do without him or her. That leaves one very predictable person to die. Beyond Borders also wants to show how tragic the situation is in war-torn and third-world countries, but it spends way too much time on the romance between Sarah and Nick than it does on the reality of relief efforts. Really, the romance should be in the background rather than the foreground…if it even needs to be here at all, that is. At another point, Sarah meets a guy whose leg was blown off by a landmine. He tells her how sickening the sound of that “click” is when you step on one. In that moment, you know either Nick or Sarah will step on a landmine at some point. All this is predictable; it’s too on-the-nose, too movie-ish. A subject such as this deserves more than clichés and obvious set-ups for familiar payoffs.

There are some interesting parts to the movie, some compelling ideas raised. Ultimately, though, it asks us to care more about a doctor and a rich woman than about the victims of poverty, famine, and violence. The screenplay for the film was kicking around Hollywood for years, and some very big names wanted to make it, most notably Oliver Stone. I wish he’d done it instead of Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Vertical Limit). Stone – in all his bombast – would have put audiences right in the middle of Cambodia and Chechnya, which is where we ought to be. He would have made the brutal reality jump right off the screen and smack the audience in the face.

That’s how it should have been. Beyond Borders should have been to relief efforts what Schindler’s List was to the Holocaust. Or what Saving Private Ryan was to WWII. Or what Platoon was to Vietnam. It should have brought tears to the eye, a lump to the throat. Instead, it provides a hint of possibility, followed by the frustration of realizing you’re essentially watching nothing more than a big budget soap opera.

( out of four)

Beyond Borders is rated R for language and war-related violence. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.

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