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Under Fire: Journalists in Combat: movie review

'Under Fire' is sometimes difficult to watch, but addresses the essential questions raised by the high death rate of journalists in war zones.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / December 2, 2011

'I was broken down by war,' says former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges in Martyn Burke's new documentary 'Under Fire: Journalists in Combat.'

By Chris Hedges

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The sometimes agonizingly powerful documentary "Under Fire: Journalists in Combat" is built around some staggering statistics: Only two journalists were killed in World War I. Sixty-three lost their lives in World War II. And in the past two decades, almost one journalist per week has been killed.

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In Iraq, the most lethal of war zones for journalists, the total killed is close to 200, which exceeds the toll for journalists from both world wars and Vietnam combined. The International News Safety Institute now counts 1,397 media professionals dead in the 10 years from 1996 to 2006 in 105 countries. This is not even to mention the numerous kidnappings and incidents of torture.

To understand why reporters on the front lines are in such increased danger, and to comprehend how they cope with their lives, director Martyn Burke interviewed a broad range of journalists, male and female, from outlets ranging from The New York Times and Reuters to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Associated Press. For insight, he brought in psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who has written extensively on the subject and treats journalists healing from trauma.

The film, which was recently shortlisted for an Oscar for best documentary, could have used more testimony from those who have successfully recovered and how they did it, and more information about how state and federal institutions are coping (or not coping) with the rehabilitation process. But the movie is nevertheless an eye-opener.

The overriding question it poses: Why do these people continue to do what they do when it is clear that reporters, like soldiers, are now, in a paradigm shift, considered fair game by enemy combatants?

Feinstein has said in interviews that he believes the answer is in some measure genetic. "They have this drive that takes them back into conflict zones repeatedly and I believe to do that, you've got to have a certain biological predisposition," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The interviews in "Under Fire" certainly bear this out. Even those journalists who deny being "war junkies" come across as just that. Reuters photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly talks about the need to "get into this war. You sort of resign yourself to the fact that you're probably going to get hurt and just hope that it isn't too bad when it happens."

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