Of all the images symbolizing our post 9/11 world, few are more searing than the video of American journalist James Foley, moments before his execution by ISIS. With his head shaven, and hands bound, clothed in an orange jump suit, Foley is forced to kneel and recite jihadist propaganda, as a knife-wielding, masked terrorist prepares to decapitate him in the Syrian desert. It was the first act of terror committed against an American by ISIS.
Ever since his death, in 2014, James Foley’s family and friends have tried to ensure that that image is not the way people remember him, and thanks to a powerful new documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story, it won’t be.
Directed by Brian Oakes, a childhood friend of Foley’s, the documentary has one overriding purpose—to reclaim the inspiring life of James Foley, as it actually was, and not, as it’s so often been referenced, by his last painful seconds on earth. That it succeeds so well is a tribute to Oakes, whose patient, understated style allows the people who knew Jim best—his family, friends, co-workers, and fellow hostages—to recount his life, in all its facets.
When we first see James Foley on screen, it’s at Marquette University, his Jesuit alma mater, delivering a speech after having survived captivity in Libya for 44 days. “I’m definitely not a hero or noble or anything,” he says humbly. “I’m just trying to do my work, and got into a little bit of trouble.”
The documentary then flashes to harrowing footage from the Libyan Revolution in 2011—some of it shot by James himself—and goes on to explain how Foley arrived there, and why he felt it so important to stay, despite all the dangers.
James Foley grew up in a close-knit Catholic family, in a small New Hampshire town, the oldest of five children. In many respects, he was an ordinary American, who loved the outdoors, big challenges, and having a good time. But, like many of us, it took him a while to find his calling.
After graduating from Marquette, he tried teaching, and helping troubled youth turn around their lives. James was good at it—much better than he thought—because he empathized with people, listened to them, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams. And it was just those qualities which led him toward a career in journalism, where he could meet and tell peoples stories—especially those most vulnerable, and in need of a public voice.
After earning a degree in journalism, most of Jim’s family was excited for him, but didn’t quite realize what “conflict journalism”—Jim’s chosen area of reporting—entailed. “I think I was in denial about how dangerous this really was,” says his mother, Diane, in the film. His younger sister Katie adds, “I was also very naïve myself. I didn’t know he was going to be immersed in actual crossfire.” Jim’s brother, John Jr, who was in the military and knew the brutal nature of war, tried to steer Jim in another direction. But Jim was determined to explore the limits of his new profession, and cover stories few others were willing to risk.
After spending time as an embedded journalist in Iraq, Jim decided to go to Libya, at the height of the anti-Gaddafi uprising in 2011. The documentary replays live footage of Jim, reporting from Benghazi, amidst all the gunfire and chaos, speaking to ordinary people, desperate for a better future, conveying their moving stories to the world. Here we are reminded of just how courageous—and necessary—conflict journalists are, and why James Foley wanted to be one; for if it were not for their diligent reports and unforgettable pictures, publicized around the globe, dictators would have a far easier time tormenting their people, under the cloak of media silence.
But Foley’s heroic reporting came at a heavy price. Shortly after filing his reports from Libya, Gaddafi loyalists attacked his convoy, killing one of his fellow journalists, Anton Hammerl, and then taking James and two other journalists hostage, as previously mentioned. The toll that took on his family is unflinchingly recounted in the film. So too is the burden Foley felt about it—especially for having encouraged Anton to travel with him to the frontlines. Jim was not a reckless adventurer, but a man of conscience, who constantly questioned his judgments. As he told his Marquette audience: “Everyday . . . I have to deal with the fact that Anton is not ever going to see his kids anymore, and I was part of that decision-making process that took him away from his kids and his wife.” Later, he would organize an auction to raise funds for Anton’s family.
Having survived Libyan captivity, Foley’s employer, the Global Post, offered him a generous desk job, but sedentary commentary was never part of Jim’s makeup, and he eventually decided, after careful consideration, to enter the field of conflict once again.
That decision was naturally questioned by his loved ones, especially after everything he had been through, but as one of his friends in the film says, nobody ever raises questions “about policeman or fireman,” and the repeated dangers they face. Conflict journalism was what James Foley did, and risking one’s life—even as Foley underwent training and took precautions to protect it—was part of it.
This time his destination was Syria, in the midst of its civil war, where the amount of suffering and danger was even greater than Libya. At one point, horrified by the inadequate emergency care given to the wounded, Jim helped raise money to import an ambulance for a hospital in Aleppo, where he had worked for months. When it finally arrived, colleagues described it as one of the happiest days of Jim’s life.
Returning home in 2012, Foley’s family was overjoyed to see Jim again, but the happy reunion would be brief, for later that year, Jim would return to Syria—never to see his loved ones again.
In November, Jim and a fellow British journalist, John Cantlie, were kidnapped, and when the Foleys received the news, they couldn’t believe it. Jim’s father, John, describes the moment as “surrealistic,” and the beginning of a new nightmare, all over again. Jim’s brother, Michael, was more optimistic. “I thought, OK, it’s going to be 45-100 days of hell, and then we’ll have him back.” But it became clear, very early on, that Jim’s Syrian captors were far more extreme and elusive than those who had taken him hostage in Libya.
For months, the US government had no idea where Jim was, or whether he was even alive. Finally, the Foley’s received a series of terrifying e-mails from the anonymous captors, claiming Jim was alive, but demanding a huge amount of money for his release, lest they execute him. The problem was that, unlike many other governments, America has a strict policy against negotiating with terrorists involving ransoms for hostages—a controversial policy questioned in the film—so the Foley’s were left to try and rescue Jim themselves, through diplomatic channels. But after an excruciating year passed, it was clear that wasn’t getting them anywhere. What did give them hope, at least briefly, were the testimonies of Jim’s fellow hostages, whose governments had paid for their release, and who revealed unknown details about Jim’s captivity.
The first was Jim’s unwavering Catholic faith. While being held hostage in Libya, James had revealed he had prayed the rosary out loud, and now in Syrian captivity, he expressed his faith once again, doing so in solidarity with his fellow non-Catholic prisoners. This openness led to one erroneous report that Jim had converted to Islam while being held—an idea quickly corrected by Jim’s family and informed news organizations. James Foley was a Catholic through and through, as the documentary makes clear, but he was also deeply ecumenical and sensitive to the faiths of others, especially in a crisis situation where inter-faith bonds were formed.
The second was Jim’s compassion. At one point, Jim was held in a small prison with 18 other men, and when fights broke out, amidst their desperation—Jim was there to break them up. He shared his food and clothes with others, and helped create games and impromptu lectures to help take their minds off of the daily terror. He spoke up for other prisoners to the guards, and was savagely beaten as a consequence. When prisoners collapsed in grief or sorrow, Jim was the first to put his arm around them and assure them they would be freed (most were), even as he knew he was the most unlikely to win his own release. “We lost all hope in captivity, but James didn’t,” says one surviving hostage. “He saw the light, instead of the dark.” Another says, remarkably, “I would not have survived without him.”
The third was Jim’s indomitable strength. No matter how many times his captors tried to break him, through physical and mental torture, they never did. That fact becomes abundantly clear in a final, secret letter he wrote to his Catholic family—his true last testament, rather than the forced script he read on the infamous execution video—delivered by one of the freed prisoners. Remarkably serene, it is a beautiful letter, addressing each member of Jim’s family, thanking them for all the blessings they had brought to his life, assuring them of his prayers, and thanking them for theirs: “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”
After the shattering news of Jim’s death, his parents spoke to the media for almost an hour, with tremendous grace and dignity. “We believe he was a martyr for freedom,” his father said. “He was courageous to the end.” The family was heartbroken, yes, but “It’s not difficult to find solace,” for “we know he is in the hands of God.” The Foleys also made an emotional appeal for others still being held hostage by terrorists. They have since created a foundation dedicated to supporting and protecting conflict journalists—something that James would have doubtlessly welcomed.
If there is one message that comes through in Jim: The James Foley Story, now airing on HBO, it is the positive and often profound influence he left on almost everyone he met. “There was nothing mundane about the man whatsoever,” says one of his colleagues, admiringly. Nicole Tung, a photojournalist who worked closely with Jim, and who was waiting to meet him on the day he was kidnapped, spoke for them all, when she summed up Jim’s inspiring life for the BBC: “I’m going to remember him very fondly. He was an amazing person, and an amazing friend.” Pausing and holding back tears, she then commented, “I think he was better than all of us, and I am going to miss him dearly.”
Watching this extraordinary documentary, one understands why.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.