'Jim: The James Foley Story': Honoring A Victim Of ISIS

“This film does not show the execution of Jim.” That is the announcement printed at the beginning of Jim: The James Foley Story, and it’s one of the few comforting moments in this upsetting, moving, and complicated documentary. James Foley was an American photojournalist whose image became widely known — “famous” seems too frivolous a word — when he was beheaded on-camera by ISIS terrorists in 2014. This film, which won the Audience Awards at the recently ended Sundance Film Festival and which begins airing on HBO on Saturday night, give’s Foley’s life a context beyond that horrific death.

Director Brian Oakes had access to Jim’s family, and through their reminiscences, New Hampshire home-movie video, and photographs, we see Jim as a tall gangly youth surrounded by siblings, most of whom are puzzled when, upon reaching young-adulthood, Jim decides he wants to leave his comfortable middle-class existence to visit sites of war and photograph the lives that are lived and lost in hot-spots such as Libya and Syria.

After tracking Jim’s various assignments and hearing interviews with some of his colleagues who call themselves “conflict journalists,” the film gets to its central point: Jim’s capture and imprisonment in Syria, where he was tortured and left in a barren room with a shifting number of other journalists from varying countries. His final imprisonment lasted about 18 months and ended with his beheading, filmed, uploaded and seen by millions all over the world — an awful symbol of terrorist extremism.

The documentary doesn’t spend much time interviewing government officials, and implies that Jim’s family believes the Americans in charge of investigating and negotiating for Jim’s release could have done more. (The vexed topic of paying ransom for release — something done for other, European colleagues with whom Jim was imprisoned — is a thorny topic here, briefly.)

What the film does best is to stand as a testament to Jim’s character. Nearly everyone interviewed, from family members to those journalists who were imprisoned with him and lived, describe him as a boundlessly optimistic, generous man who would literally give the shirt off his back to people who needed it. Some viewers are bound to be frustrated that this documentary isn’t a hard-headed, clear-eyed look at the dangers of journalism in war zones complete with suggestions of what might be done to prevent further deaths.

But that’s not what these filmmakers set out to do. I found it very difficult not to cry during the relentless inevitability of Foley’s final days, hearing his fellow prisoners speak of his unstinting belief that he might be freed, and knowing as a viewer what fate awaited him. No, the film does not show James Foley’s beheading. But his death is no less agonizing when it finally occurs, at which point the film can do nothing but end.

Jim: The James Foley Story airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO.