By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; C03
The world feels big and yet way too small in "Reporter," Eric Daniel Metzgar's ennobling, intentionally depressing documentary about the relentless work ethic of Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times op-ed columnist who writes firsthand about the worst situations every hemisphere has to offer.
"Reporter," which airs Thursday night on HBO, follows Kristof, 50, and two young idealists (a doctor and an inner-city English teacher) into the fractiously ravaged nation of Congo, where Kristof wants to write a column about the reigning warlord. Ideally, he hopes to teach his companions, who won a contest to travel with him, about the value of witnessing the world's atrocities and scintillating them into stories that will call on people to act. Which is what Kristof did with his work in Darfur, Sudan: He caused people -- from George Clooney on down -- to do whatever they can.
While watching "Reporter," I did one of those Venn diagram exercises we all loved in high school, with four circles. In one, I imagined everyone who can find Darfur or Congo on a map and tell you precisely what's been going on there in the last five, 15, 30 years.
In the next circle: Everyone who pays for an actual copy of the New York Times to be delivered to them each morning -- from the stack sent to the White House to, say, the copy left in a roadside mailbox near a summer ranch in Tesuque, N.M. In other words, the million or so people who get their Times -- but mostly the much smaller group that reads it.
In the next circle, I put the core group of HBO viewers who are fluent in the network's documentary form and equally fluent in the wisdoms and rages of Larry David, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Carrie Bradshaw, David Simon.
In the final circle, I wrote "Ben Affleck" (who is "Reporter's" executive producer) and the names of concerned celebrities, accomplished authors and other earnest influencers who wouldn't be out of place talking geopolitics in Aspen or Davos, and aren't out of place showing up in "Reporter" to talk about the meaning and impact of Kristof's columns: "Mia Farrow." "Samantha Power." "Gail Collins." "Jeffrey Toobin."
Now imagine that the circles not only intersect, but overlap entirely. These are all the same folks, bound together by Kristof's dispatches.
There you have the central takeaway from "Reporter" and the unwavering resolve of the journalist: The informed people who can do anything about the state of the world are a group that is ultimately too small to do everything. Compassion for the suffering is out of whack, "an unstable emotion," filmmaker Metzgar narrates, quoting Susan Sontag.
Soon enough, Kristof is on deadline and one of his naive companions (the doctor) is obsessed with saving the life of a starved, diseased rape victim named Yohanita. The column winds up being about Yohanita, but does it make a difference?
A certain futility overshadows this film's ruminative nature, which mourns the math of genocide, famine and war, and yet celebrates the soul, the individual. Kristof recounts, through years of work (and from research by psychologists), how a single pair of eyes seen in a photo of a starving refugee work better than a photo of two starving refugees, or statistics that refer to millions of starving refugees.
With surprising and sad synthesis, Metzgar brings his film back to a Manhattan epilogue that tries to calculate the elusive value of Kristof's work. "Reporter" asks its viewers to consider the world and all its problems, only without newspapers that will pay journalists to bear such global witness. Even the reporter himself, sitting in his office in the Times's fabulously expensive skyscraper, can only guess at the question of his own extinction.
(90 minutes) airs Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.