Movie review: 'Bhutto'
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 17, 2010
The documentary "Bhutto" is ostensibly a biography of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. In 1988, at the age of 35, she not only became the youngest prime minister of a majority-Muslim state, but the first woman to hold that position. Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara's meticulously researched and largely sympathetic film opens with Bhutto's 2007 return to her homeland after a career marred by corruption accusations, imprisonment and exile. It was a return that quickly turned ugly when she was assassinated in a still-unsolved crime that many believe was enabled, if not engineered, by the government of then-President Pervez Musharraf.
The tragic story that "Bhutto" ultimately tells, however, is a lot bigger than even its namesake. At times, it's almost too big for its own good.
Though a captivating subject in her own right, Bhutto periodically disappears from the narrative entirely. After the film's explosive opening, it backtracks to the 1947 creation of Pakistan, in what is known as the Partition of India into separate Muslim and Hindu states. It then moves forward, inch by painstaking inch, through 60 years of Pakistani history. The first politically active Bhutto to be discussed is not, in fact, Benazir, but her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as president and then prime minister of Pakistan from 1971 to 1977.
Context, of course, is important. And the movie has plenty of it. At times, some of the the little tidbits the filmmakers include suggest fodder for another whole movie or two. For instance: In the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan one interviewee states, almost in passing, that the textbooks used in Pakistani madrassas, or religious schools - where many of today's jihadists are cultivated - were designed and printed by the University of Nebraska.
As Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. deputy special representative to Afghanistan, tells the camera, "We thought that defeating the Soviet Union was so important that we didn't care that we were actually supporting Osama bin Laden and people who were his allies."
It's heavy stuff, but I digress. So does the film.
As distracting as some of these subplots may seem, they are in fact integral to the understanding of Bhutto and the reforms that she hoped to accomplish. In an archival interview, Bhutto observes that the rise of madrassas might never have happened if the Pakistani government had been able to provide a decent education for its own children.
Yeah, it's complicated. Bhutto was a polarizing figure, revered and reviled with almost equal passion. And while Baughman and O'Hara generally cast their subject in the most favorable light, they do include interviews with Bhutto's niece Fatima, who blames her aunt for the murders of two of Benazir's brothers, including Fatima's father. Like the Kennedy clan, with whom the Bhuttos are often compared, assassination follows this family like a curse.
For those who can follow the movie's twisted personal and political path, however, "Bhutto" is an exhaustive, if sometimes exhausting, look at a larger-than-life figure.
Contains some violent news footage and discussion of assassination.