Having arrived in theaters shortly after the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Harrison's Flowers gains most of its relevance by accident. Removed from its sudden, sad (but marketable) context, the film is merely an average example of what might be termed the "action weeper" -- a half-CNN, half-Lifetime network hybrid in which a plucky heroine fights to save her family on the bloody world stage.
The time is 1991, and our attention is focused on one Sarah Lloyd (Andie MacDowell), a Newsweek staffer whose photojournalist husband, Harrison (David Strathairn), goes missing while on assignment in Yugoslavia. Sitting at home in New Jersey, Harrison's co-workers and Sarah's family alike believe that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photog must have perished in the region's civil war. Sarah, however, remains certain that her hubby is still alive. How can she be sure? A wife just knows, silly.
It's the first of many leaps of faith the movie expects us to take right along with Sarah, who soon drops everything to follow her passion to the warn-torn Balkans. There, she hooks up with a rag-tag group of international journalists (one of them played by the excellent Brendan Gleeson of "The General"), who are determined to bring pictures of the unfolding atrocities to the outside world. With the ancillary mission of reuniting the Lloyds now heaped upon their plate, they find themselves perpetually dodging bullets, tanks and roving gangs of rapists. "Dodge" is indeed the word for it: The shocking scenes of carnage are so well choreographed we almost don't notice that this globe-trotting Dorothy and her pals are remaining virtually unscathed on their journey through a Balkan Oz.
Though pluck is probably the last quality one would normally attribute to MacDowell, she has a undeniable ability to win and then hold an audience's sympathy. The further Sarah's strength is taxed, the better the actress comes off. Her highly credible portrayal ignites our deepest feelings of protectiveness -- all but obscuring the realization that, on a scripted level, Sarah is no better developed than any of the other straw-man characters the film throws at us.
Acting talent and pyrotechnic sophistication keep "Harrison's Flowers" alive until its third act, when it simply falls apart. Voice-over narration arrives from out of nowhere, attempting to fill in the gaps of a story in which every transitional sequence seems to have hit the cutting-room floor. As the picture races to its rushed conclusion, it becomes clear that writer/director/producer Elie Chouraqui has no idea what his movie is really about. By the time Sarah nears the end of her road, we don't know if we're watching an individual relationship conquer mass dehumanization or a private agenda becoming dwarfed by the love of civilization in general. Whoever coined the phrase "the personal is political" created a confusion in which movies like this one simply wallow.