BOSTON — Who would have guessed that Woody Harrelson, who launched his career as a sitcom funnyman in "Cheers," would become a specialist in controversial Hollywood drama?
From the notorious "Natural Born Killers" to last year's "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," his choice of projects has been anything but cautious. His new picture, "Welcome to Sarajevo," pushes fewer hot buttons than those earlier films but still provides plenty to debate.
Harrelson plays an American reporter named Flynn, stationed with several colleagues in Sarajevo at the height of the Bosnian war. Faced with choices between personal safety and professional responsibility - should you risk death or injury to get today's big story? - the journalists handle this pressure in various ways. Flynn takes on the mannerisms of a jaded veteran, using cynical humor as a defense against anxiety. British correspondent Michael Henderson takes a different tack, becoming so concerned over events that his objectivity as a newsman may become the war's next casualty.
This situation boils over when Henderson realizes a local orphanage is under steady bombardment from Bosnian Serb guns. Determined to turn the crisis around, he begins reporting from the orphanage as often as possible, hoping this will spark outrage - and action - in the world community.
Outraged himself when help fails to materialize, he throws away his last shreds of detachment and decides to take individual responsibility for at least one endangered child. Henderson smuggles a little girl to his family in England, where she can live safely until the war ends. He doesn't care what Bosnian law might think of this arrangement - or what skeptics like Flynn might say about lighting one tiny candle in the face of such overwhelming darkness.
"Welcome to Sarajevo" is based on true events, including the decision by Henderson's real-life prototype (TV correspondent Michael Nicholson) to rescue a Bosnian youngster. In keeping with this background, the movie boldly incorporates actual newsreel footage - with authentic images of human suffering, some of them seen in TV reports on the war - into its conventionally scripted and acted story.
Some viewers at the Cannes filmfest and elsewhere have criticized this, calling it disrespectful and even exploitative to mix depictions of real tragedy with Hollywood drama, no matter how well-intended the reasons.
Others disagree, noting that documentary and fiction are both valuable means of exploring situations in need of attention, and that no unbreakable rule forbids mixing these modes in a single movie.
This positive argument carries a lot of weight. In a sense, "Welcome to Sarajevo" is less about its fictionalized scenes than about the actual events behind them: the siege of Sarajevo, the bombardment of the orphanage, a reporter's decision to take personal action. All its dramatized elements, from its scripted dialogue to Harrelson's role as the naysaying cynic, can be seen as devices needed to bring a harrowing but humane story to a popular audience without watering down the very real horrors of a very real war.
The movie was filmed in Sarajevo as well as Croatia and Macedonia by Michael Winterbottom.
* Rated R; contains rough language and harrowing scenes of real and dramatized suffering.