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‘First They Killed My Father’ Is Another Ambitious, Boring Angelina Jolie Passion Project

The Hollywood superstar’s Netflix film about the Cambodian genocide may be her best historical epic yet—but it’s still frustratingly impersonal

Angelina Jolie Netflix

There are two Angelina Jolies. There’s Angelina Jolie, the Oscar winner and Hollywood star, goddess of the Vanity Fair cover pose, reveler in the ups and downs of celebrity and public perception. And then there’s Angelina Jolie, the activist and ambassador, a woman who would seem by trade to hover, graciously, above her First World self.

It’s trite to pretend these two personas are drastically different. There are, to begin with, plenty of precedents for activist-celebrities. And it was, after all, Angelina the star who, while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000, discovered her love of activism and, specifically, of that country. In Siem Reap, Angelina the star happened upon a book on the side of the road being sold for $2. It was First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, written by Loung Ung, a childhood survivor of the devastating Cambodian genocide that, carried out by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, resulted in the killing of an estimated 1.7 million people: nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Seventeen years later, Jolie has made that book into a movie.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which debuted on Netflix on Friday, is Jolie’s fourth turn behind the camera as a feature film director and her third as a chronicler of war. Her first, which she also wrote and produced, was In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), a romantic drama set in Sarajevo amid the Bosnian War. The next was 2014’s Unbroken—another war drama, this time chronicling Olympian Louis Zamperini’s time as a POW in Japan after surviving at sea on a raft for 47 days. These projects are ambitious, well-chosen, and a little boring. Her new film, which is the best of the three, nevertheless furthers that trend.

Well made but frustratingly impersonal, First They Killed My Father is mired in a sense of respectful, admiring distance. It is almost entirely told from the perspective of Ung herself, who’s 7 in the movie, and whose flashbacks throughout attempt to anchor the proceedings—which begin with her family being forcibly evacuated from their home in Phnom Penh, where Ung’s father worked as a high-ranking government official—in some sense of who she is. But all the point-of-view shots in the world won’t add up to inner life or individual character without a more rigorous sense of who the subject is. And Jolie’s film, despite its good intentions, has little sense of who the genocide’s victims are. It’s a movie that privileges the history of what happened over a sense of the people it was happening to.

Still of a crowd in ‘First They Killed My Father’
‘First They Killed My Father’

Jolie’s movie typically sees those victims as a huge anonymous mass of roving refugees. Clustered together as families, these people are, for the most part, unlikely to survive. Otherwise, they’re the soldiers themselves, who are indistinct by choice: The Angkar, the ruling party of communist rebels, did not believe in individuality. But everyone else did. Hence the dissatisfaction of peering into a face like Ung’s when the movie reduces her to a silent witness. She’s a little girl who stands in for many—too many. And her immediate family—four siblings, her mother, and her father—are equally indistinct. They have no character, no ideas, no experiences beyond their pain. This is fiction filmmaking that, despite occasionally feverish editing and a few gracefully askew shots, nevertheless aspires to documentary plainness. No amount of jumpy impressionism—one of Jolie’s more tired stylistic ticks as a director—distracts from the bland predictability of the movie’s ethics. First They Killed My Father is, adamantly, a film that believes that by merely documenting atrocities through the eyes of those who witnessed them, it can also, automatically, sell itself as a movie about those witnesses.

It is, in other words, a run-of-the-mill liberal atrocity film. Call it Nick Kristof cinema, or perhaps Angelina the activist cinema—which is why news of the exploitative strategies Jolie’s team used to cast the child actors is not so surprising and is even less ironic. This approach is too common a trend to be disappointing in itself (and, in fact, the last major movie on Cambodia to make a mark in the United States, 1984’s The Killing Fields, suffered from similar problems). But for Jolie, it’s a disappointing return to form on the heels of By the Sea, which remains her best film as a director—as well as her most vain.

Maybe there’s something to that. By the Sea, which Jolie made with her husband, Brad Pitt, is only two years old, and it can’t help but feel like the prescient document of a marriage that’s about to fail. The movie was accused of being a “132-minute perfume ad,” and so be it: The premise of perfume ads is to sell you on the idea that glamour, an alternative to blemishes and failure, can be bought. The premise of By the Sea is, to the contrary, that there’s no antidote to a blemish, especially one undermining a marriage.

Hence the pending divorce? By the Sea is about a struggling writer (Pitt) and his fashionable, ex-dancer wife (Jolie) escaping to France to, well, wallow in their bored grief. They fight, they drink, they spy on the couple next door through a hole in the wall. We in the audience, meanwhile, find ourselves peering through the surface of the movie at the real-life couple onscreen. The movie has its share of clumsy conceits, but it’s weirdly fraught and occasionally even thrilling. Pitt and Jolie camping out by a wall with wine and dinner trays to watch another couple have sex, then turning inward toward their characters’ (or is it their own?) discontent gets much more of a rise out of Jolie’s direction than anything in her films about war.

Her war films aren’t strictly impersonal: Insofar as her philanthropy is tied up in her persona, each of Jolie’s films as a director is, in a way, “personal.” Furthermore, in the case of First They Killed My Father, Jolie’s adopted son, Maddox, is a descendant of this atrocity. It’s a worthy subject, one she cares deeply about. And it’s possible, seeing her celebrity in this context, that Jolie’s instinct is mostly to make this kind of project while shying away from making movies about herself. However, on the evidence of her movies, she has much more to say about herself than about anything else. And that’s OK! First They Killed My Father may be Jolie’s passion project; but By the Sea is, by some margin, the more passionate one.

I’m torn on what that means for First They Killed My Father, which is more worthwhile to watch for what it’s about and more worthwhile to talk about because of who made it, than it is because of its merits. The movie, which is almost entirely in the language of Khmer, has been chosen as Cambodia’s entry to the Best Foreign Language film category at the Oscars, which, at the very least, means Jolie has earned some of that country’s respect. “I cannot find words to express what it means to me that I was entrusted with telling part of the story of this country,” she said at the film’s premiere in Cambodia this February. Being entrusted with this story is indeed an honor. Jolie doesn’t squander it. But she also fails to make much of it.