'Witness' review: War photographers focus

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Crosses mark a field where many murdered women Crosses mark a field where many murdered women were dumped in Ciudad Juarez during the 1990's. The murder rate among women is still very high in Juarez. Juarez has become one of the deadliest cities in Mexico as violence between competing drug mafias, street gangs, police and the Mexican army have turned the city into a virtual free-fire zone. Mexico has suffered over 10,000 drug mafia related murders since 2007. Photo Credit: HBO

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REVIEW

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 VĂ©ronique 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.

BOTTOM LINE Mann and HBO deserve much credit for profiling these extraordinary people. It's just too bad the execution tends to be a little long-winded or not nearly as expansive as it should be.

GRADE B-

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