In case you didn’t know, Angelina Jolie is an activist for human rights. The Oscar-winner has had one of the more successful transitions from sex symbol to legitimate presence in Hollywood. Despite being on tabloid magazine covers almost every week, Jolie is an honest-to-God role model for people (let alone women in film) and someone who has proven she is as passionate for world issues as she is for filmmaking. According to her, it all started when she went to Cambodia in 2000 while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. When she learned about the atrocities perpetrated to its people and the humility still present in the land, her life was changed forever.
Her fourth directorial outing seems to want to bring more people to that awakening. First They Killed My Father is an adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name (Ung also co-wrote the script with Jolie) that details her survival through starvation, forced labor, and separation from her family as a five-year-old during the reign of the Khmer Rouge Communist regime in 1975. The young Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) struggles to understand the invasion going on around her as those around her are beaten, killed, and trained to become soldiers.
As a director, Jolie pulls no punches. She and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) make use of both close-up perspectives of Loung and keeping their distance to show the grand scale of terror. The audience sees everything from the scope of an assault between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge in a child refugee camp to a little girl being beaten for stealing one bean. The focus is on Loung, both on the events folding around her and her inner fears of what happens to her family. Despite the horrors around her, Jolie wants the audience to focus on the innocence of Loung being practically pummeled into submission. This is the third time Jolie has tackled historical human crimes (from Bosnia in In the Land of Blood and Honey to Japan in Unbroken), but First They Killed My Father has a solid balance of the large-scale war and intimate moments with Loung and her family.
The problem is that it’s easy to forget that Loung is the main focus of the movie. Jolie’s direction jumps back and forth between shooting the movie like a documentary and distancing herself from Loung and having the real attention-grabbing, cinematic shots. It makes the momentum of the movie jerk between strong starts and slow stops. It also makes the 136 minute runtime feel like as long as a Ken Burns documentary. It’s good that Jolie is a strong believer in “show, don’t tell” directing, but it’s hard to ignore that this is a movie we’ve seen before. It’s like Empire of the Sun without the whimsy, or even Jolie’s 2014 feature Unbroken. Despite the true technical prowess that Jolie has behind the camera, it’s hard for First They Killed My Father to justify how unique it is. When the movie stays directly with Loung and the experience from her eyes, as her childhood practically shrinks from her pupils, it’s what gives the movie the edge it needs. Moch’s performance helps as well with a silent but powerful presence onscreen for someone so young.
It’s certainly Jolie’s best directorial effort to date. She wrangles the multiple elements of this tragic historical drama successfully though without any significant flare. It’s clear Jolie has a connection and passion for this story and she brings the right amount of emotion to its film adaptation. First They Killed My Father’s biggest weakness is that a story like this has been seen so many times before, but maybe that’s also another point Jolie is trying to make. She’s combined her activism with the power of film to remind audiences of how frequent great human tragedy has been and how it can be survived. Other filmmakers might turn that into something cheesy, but Jolie wants audiences to bruise first so the healing feels all the more worth it.