'Witness' review: War photographers focus
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THE SHOW "Witness"
WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Producer-director Michael Mann (along with David Frankham) profiles three photojournalists in pursuit of their perilous craft in this four-part film premiering Monday night. They are Eros Hoagland, son of Newsweek photographer John Hoagland, who was killed covering the war in El Salvador in 1984; French photojournalist Véronique de Viguerie, and New York-based freelancer Michael Christopher Brown. The film follows each on assignment in Juarez, South Sudan, Libya and Rio de Janeiro.
MY SAY Celebrated war photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed April 20, 2011, while covering the attack on the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, and it's implied that the three photojournalists profiled here could meet the same fate. This is spectacularly dangerous work, so the question throughout "Witness" -- implied -- is: Why do this at all?
As viewers, you're pretty much left on your own to seek answers, though there are plenty of instances that beg for context, understanding and deeper meaning. Mann wants to approach his subject much as they approach theirs -- as silent witnesses looking for a shot that will instantly capture the essential truth of a conflict. But what works for them doesn't necessarily work for him. Of the three, only Hoagland -- who in a very real sense is carrying on his father's work -- is compulsively introspective.
Also, what's best about "Witness" sometimes turns out to be what's weakest. It effortlessly, often evocatively, captures a you-are-there feel, as you peer right over the shoulders of the subjects in their relentless quest for the perfect shot. But they also often arrive long after the event, and what they capture is static -- or sometimes just plain dull. Perhaps the essential truth of this craft: Besides courage, a great deal of time and work goes into getting that one perfect shot.