When Sarah first laid eyes on the brash, impetuous Dr. Nick Callahan, her life changed—instantly. The American woman had been expecting an evening of drinks, dancing and dinner conversation with her husband at a charity dinner for humanitarian aid. Instead she got a foul-mouthed, maverick relief worker with shock-and-awe tactics on his mind: Nick crashed the party with an emaciated African child in tow hoping to jolt the deep-pocketed into financial action. Things didn't go as he planned. The hardened guests laughed and had Nick dragged off by the authorities.
Sarah, though, was more than a little shaken by seeing suffering in the flesh. So she packed a bag and headed off for a stint in Ethiopia ... with Nick. The years fell into each other like dominos, and as a decade passed Sarah’s heart became more and more entwined with the cause of the downtrodden—and fell more in love with Nick.
Sarah is a model of compassion. Deeply moved by Nick’s “presentation” at the relief dinner, she weeps upon seeing the malnourished Ethiopian child. Despite foolishly flying to Africa on a whim with visions of helping the impoverished, she conducts herself in a remarkably tenacious and gracious way. She rescues a skeletal Ethiopian child and his wounded mother from certain death, ignoring "voices of reason" who called her efforts “a waste.” She sits by the boy day and night, urging him to take liquids. That experience prompts her to take a job with the U.N. and dedicate her energies to the underprivileged. She concludes that giving humanity “hope” and a “chance of life” is “something worth fighting for.” At several points she selflessly puts herself in harm’s way to help Nick.
Additionally, Sarah and her sister model a wonderfully healthy relationship. Sarah remains in her loveless marriage in order to provide stability for her young children. Missionaries get surprisingly good press when an African woman praises them for teaching her English. Nick goes to extraordinary measures to help refugees in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya.
When Sarah’s sister turns up late at a party, she quips, “I couldn’t get a cab—God’s punishment.” Nick says that diseased Africans who lack medicine and liquor “feel everything straight from God.” During a speech at the U.N., Sarah states that she prays for relief workers.
Nick makes crude comments about sexualized dancing and breast implants. A relief worker jokingly requests the services of a pair of hookers. Sarah wears a number of tight tank tops. It’s implied that Sarah’s husband, Henry, is having an affair. A sly reference is made about Cambodian prostitutes. Sarah and Nick commit adultery (audiences briefly see them groping each other in bed; there is no explicit nudity).
When Nick crashes the relief dinner, he quite literally bowls Sarah over before being forcefully ejected by guards. A young child freezes to death in the British winter. An African mother’s abdomen is covered with bloody lacerations. Later, the camera gapes as Nick probes her chest cavity during surgery. Ethiopian soldiers fire automatic weapons into the air in order to drive back a starving mob. An amputee talks about being blown up by a mine and his descriptive words seem almost prophetic when another individual steps on an explosive device.
Nick gets savagely beaten by a Cambodian military official (and by Sarah) after illegal munitions are discovered in an official U.N. aid shipment. But Beyond Borders’ most intense moment comes when Cambodian Communists storm Nick’s camp and drop a grenade in front of an infant. During the rush to save the baby two people are shot, one slashed across the face and several macheted to death. In other scenes, a person shot by a sniper writhes in agony on the street. Mortars strafe a snowy military camp killing soldiers left and right. A falling tree nearly crushes Nick and Sarah. A gunman cruelly shoots a fleeing prisoner in non-lethal areas of his body. A man is violently hurled through the air by the force of an explosion.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Sarah and Nick regularly puff away on cigarettes. Relief workers smoke and swill beer. Nick keeps a bottle of whiskey in his tent. A CIA operative downs drinks at a Cambodian bar and inhales in other scenes. Chechen rebels smoke as well. Alcohol is served at a charitable dinner and a birthday party. Soldiers are bribed with booze.
When Angelina Jolie first read the script for Beyond Borders, she felt like Sarah glimpsing that starving Ethiopian at the fundraiser. “I was really moved by it,” she stated. “I knew nothing about the subject matter.” Not that that's surprising. Starvation, rampant disease and unpredictable violence are all things Americans have very little contact with. Solicitation videos produced by such groups as World Relief, UNICEF, Compassion or World Vision might bring tears to the eyes of those watching, but how deep do the affected then dig to do something? On one level, Beyond Borders works like those videos (amped up to the power of 10). It slaps Americans across the face with bleak realities (shots of people grotesquely disfigured by disease and neglect; images of perishing infants and brutally butchered indigents) beyond our comfortable comprehension. Shooting the film prompted Jolie to adopt a Cambodian orphan, and it will, at the very least, make American moviegoers heartily thankful for their country.
Not that one should think the movie is morally upstanding—or even that it exhibits particularly good filmmaking just because it dwells on a world of despair. Its episodic, over-long, meandering plot gets tiresome. The characters aren’t quite two-dimensional, but they’re flat enough to be unbelievable. Then there is the tissue-paper thin love story, which all too quickly attempts to justify adultery. And Nick’s bouts of profanity are ear-stinging. It's at its best when it portrays the life-and-death struggles of those in war-wracked nations. But even here, satisfactory answers to basic sociopolitical questions (such as what role the United Nations ought to play in the affairs of sovereign nations, how non-governmental relief organizations should obtain funding, the use of explosive ordnance for "good" and the role of Communism in the state of the Third World) are never proffered.