Mic Wright’s Remotely Furious: A Harsh Handbrake Turn – From How I Met You Mother To How Tim Hetherington Lost His Life
I’VE been thinking about bad endings this week; one in fiction and one, dreadfully, tragically real. Pulling together the finale of How I Met Your Mother, which used a by-no-means unexpected passing to tie up loose ends, and the real death of Tim Hetherington, the astounding documentary photographer whose life is the subject of Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?, in one TV column may seem crass. It probably is. But that’s how TV works, mashing together different stories, shifting tone more awkwardly than a local radio DJ.
If you were engaged in idle channel surfing, Sebastian Junger’s film on the life and death of Hetherington, his friend and collaborator on the Academy Award-nominated Restrepo, would have pulled you up short. Named after a casual remark made by documentary photographer as he and a group of other journalists made their way into the Libyan town of Misrata, the film paints a picture of a man who had to document the world and its most dangerous stories even when he knew he should stop.
It during the same trip to Libya that Hetherington’s astounding reporting came to a devastating full stop. Just weeks after he and Junger had put on their tuxes at the Oscars, he was dead, killed in a mortar attack while accompanying Libyan rebels on the front line. In the remarkable Restrepo, Junger and Hetherington documented 14 months with American combat unit on the front lines. In Libya, his luck ran out.
But while Hetherington spent much of his professional life in the noise and fury of conflict zones, Which Way…? is a quiet, reflective portrait of a man who clearly thought deeply about his role and responsibility. It is tightly focused on question: what is a photographer’s duty and when is it time to live you own life? It’s a spell-binding piece of work from the opening moments when a series of outtakes pricks the potential for pomposity as Hetherington swears and laughs as he attempts to articulate in words what he made so evident in images.
Unlike some of the conflict junkies in his profession. Hetherington was, based on the testimony of friends in the film and his own words, a more reflective documentarian. He first gained attention with incredible shots of children blinded by war in Sierra Leone then he made his way to Liberia where a project to photograph the Liberian football team metamorphosed into a far greater connection with the country.
He joined filmmaker James Brabazon following the progress of the rebel LURD army as it lurched toward the capital Monrovia. In the film, Hetherington talks of how he was attempting not simply to capture the guts and gore of war but how war becomes part of the “hard-wiring of the young men” involved in it. That same goal drove his work with Junger on Restrepo. Before that he went on to spend years working in Liberia and, as Brabazon, recounts in Which Way…? he did not do so as a detached observer. When a medic was under threat of execution by the rebels, who suspected him of being a spy, Hetherington stepped in to argue (successfully) for the man’s life.
The best way to watch Which Way…? is as a double feature with Restrepo. It too focuses on the relationships and psychology of men in war. Junger and Hetherington immersed themselves for 14 months and it is a more visceral and intense than the understandably elegiac Which Way…? After Afghanistan, Hetherington had intended to step away from conflict reporting. His father warned him against the Libyan trip and he had a partner with whom he was beginning to build a life. The desire to tell the story proved too strong to resist.
And now…our abrupt handbrake turn to talk about How I Met Your Mother a sitcom that many people have merely dipped into but which, across 9 years, built up an obsessional following. Internet Whiners haven’t had such a good opportunity to moan about a finale since Lost’s writers gathered up all their loose ends and presented them to the audience like a cat with an eviscerated mouse: “Will this do?”
Of course the show finally answered the titular question but how could it be truly satisfying to the hardcore after nearly a decade of missed connections and head fakes? Many viewers were riled to discover that [spoiler klaxon] the mother was dead for the whole story in flashbacks and that Ted, the narrator, ended up under his former love Robin’s window, waiting to see if she might fill the space left by “The Mother”. It was messy, unsatisfying and, at best, bittersweet for fans jonesing after a happy ending. Watching the finale not long after the Hetherington documentary, it actually felt right to me. How many lives get that clean conclusion? Not many, I’m afraid.