HERE’S a paradox: We’re finding authentic leadership these days not from our nominal leaders in Washington but from unelected (and mostly unelectable) figures whom we like to deride as self-indulgent narcissists.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Congress is so paralyzed and immature, even sleazy, that we reporters sometimes leave a politician’s press conference feeling the urgent need to shower. But look at university and high school students. Sure, plenty still live for a party, but a growing number have no time for beer because they’re so busy tutoring prisoners, battling sex trafficking or building wells in Africa.
Even more startling, we can now turn to moral leadership from — brace yourself — Hollywood’s “most beautiful people.” I know, I know. What we expect from celebrities is mostly scandalous sex lives and crackpot behavior, and some do oblige. But increasingly as our “leaders” debase the national conversation, sex symbols elevate it.
Take Angelina Jolie, who is making her debut as a director and writer with the aching new movie “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” It’s a Bosnian love story set against genocide, and it illuminates the human capacity to both love and kill.
Let me acknowledge that I regularly embarrass my kids with my ignorance of popular culture. The first time I met Jolie, four years ago, I was brought over to a couch where three women were seated — and realized, to my horror, that I had no idea which one she was. She rescued me by introducing herself.
(Maybe I should warn of a conflict here. Jolie submitted a blurb for a book that my wife and I wrote about empowering women. Better yet, she held our book, the cover perfectly upright for the cameras, as a shield when paparazzi were hounding her.)
Jolie’s new movie doesn’t pander to anyone. For starters, she isn’t in it. The cast is made up of unknowns from the Balkans, speaking foreign languages with subtitles. When Jolie wrote the screenplay and proposed filming it, she said, everyone thought she was nuts.
The movie portrays the romance between a Bosnian Serbian man and a Bosnian Muslim woman. When the Bosnian war begins, he becomes an officer in a genocidal army and she becomes a survivor in one of the army’s rape camps. The couple reunites, but she is his prisoner as well as his lover. The army officer reminds me of war criminals I’ve interviewed: a good and decent guy when he’s not committing crimes against humanity.
“How do people get to the point,” Jolie asks, “when they’re murdering the grandmother next door. How does that happen? If we can start to understand it, then maybe we can figure out how to address the signs earlier.”
Jolie also wants viewers to meditate on humanitarian intervention and what can be done to prevent mass atrocities. “I hoped people would watch the film and think, ‘Why didn’t we stop it?’ ” she said.
I started off rather scornful of celebrities dabbling in humanitarian causes. When Mia Farrow inquired about going to Darfur with me, I archly declined on the presumption that she couldn’t hack it. Then she traveled to the region on her own, and I began to run into her anyway.
Once Farrow consulted me about her plan to buy a donkey and hike off by herself across a desert occupied by murderous militias. She planned to travel without even a tent, just a rope to encircle her as she slept in the sand on the theory that snakes and scorpions would turn aside at the rope.
Farrow has since become a friend, but I’m now afraid to travel with her. I might not be able to hack it.
Likewise, the war in Congo is the most lethal since World War II, but it hasn’t been much covered by many news organizations. One person who has visited repeatedly is Ben Affleck. He has made himself an expert on Congo, and he plans to return this month.
Look, as a journalist, I’m proud of my profession. Yet it’s also clear that commercial pressures are driving some news organizations, television in particular, to drop the ball. Instead of covering Congo, it’s cheaper and easier to put a Democrat and a Republican in a studio and have them yell at each other.
Frankly, it’s just humiliating when news organizations cover George Clooney (my travel buddy on one Darfur trip) more attentively when he breaks up with a girlfriend than when he travels to Sudan and uses satellite photos to catch the Sudanese government committing mass atrocities.
So here’s my hope for the new year. That our “leaders” in Washington will pause in their supercilious narcissism and show a hint of the seriousness and moral purpose of, yes, celebrities.