Since winning an Oscar in 1999 and following it up with the lead role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie has been a movie star, featured in both hit action tentpoles like Salt and Wanted and prestige Oscar-bait projects like Changeling and A Mighty Heart. At no point has Jolie's star really dimmed, partially because of the constant media spotlight on her personal life, and on more than one occasion she's used that star power to create a project that shines a light on serious issues she cares about. It hasn't really worked yet—the well-reviewed A Mighty Heart was commercially ignored, and her directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey flopped—but her first effort, Beyond Borders, is the most representative of Jolie's noble hubris.
After her initial burst of super-stardom in 2000, Jolie was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and traveled all over the world to areas in crisis, like Darfur, Syria and Kabul. Beyond Borders is directly inspired by her experience and was released alongside her book Notes From My Travels, which chronicles her work abroad.
I have to confess, I have not yet gotten around to reading Jolie's book; but I did see Beyond Borders in theaters in 2003 and revisited it this week (it's streaming on Netflix). There are so many examples of films that are preachy lectures first, engaging stories second—like 2012 charter school melodrama Won't Back Down, or Robert Redford's "a bunch of people discuss war in the Middle East" snore-fest Lions for Lambs. But Beyond Borders might be the ultimate example.
The problem with Beyond Borders is that it isn't just preachy, or hectoring—it's downright patronizing. One assume that Jolie expressed an interest in appearing in a drama about aid workers in Africa, but the way the film gets there is about as clichéd as you can imagine. Jolie is Sarah, a naïve socialite whose world is rocked by a profane rant from Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) at a fundraiser, who marches in with a sick African kid and lets us all know that we're a bunch of racists. If Clive Owen wants to do this in real life, I'm all for it, but as drama, shouting at the camera doesn't really function.
Sarah is moved enough to join Nick's crusade—she quits her art gallery job and goes with him to Ethiopia to help out his refugee camps. This means the film is a literal education for all of us foolish Westerners—Owen delivers rant after rant about how harsh the real world is and how unfair the lack of aid funding makes life for the suffering people he's trying to help.
Every argument that Owen and Jolie advance during Beyond Borders is easy to get on board with. The general fury and despair of the situation is worth exploring. But pretty quickly, one feels victimized more than anything else. Yes, yes, of course we should do more to help! Yes, there are so many mental walls for Jolie's entitled white girl to break down. Owen's character is one of the most annoying ever devised for film—he's constantly mocking Jolie, and by extension everyone, for her silly behavior and it's supposed to be charming but it just comes off as embarrassingly smug.
Of course there's plot—romance develops, war explodes around them, but nothing really happens. We're just supposed to exit feeling educated. Jolie's character certainly does—she's a weeping porcelain doll at the beginning of the film and a hardened, somewhat cynical but still idealistic at her core aid worker. Martin Campbell (in his real low period between his two great James Bond movies) makes sure every emotional beat hits as hard as possible.
Beyond Borders basically came and went and was quickly forgotten, consigned to the garbage bin of message movies that forgot to be about anything else. Jolie has tried and tried to perfect using cinema as a delivery system for messages she really cares about. She has not yet managed to even come close to pulling it off. But she'll likely never do it worse than Beyond Borders.