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Movie Review

Bhutto

A profile in courage: ‘Bhutto’ keeps slain leader’s passion alive

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By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2010

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In the documentary “Bhutto,’’ we see black-and-white stills of Benazir Bhutto, favored daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during her days at Harvard. Set to John Lennon’s “Power to the People,’’ the sequence shows a long-haired Bhutto, circa 1969-’73, without head scarf, being swept up by the era’s protests. Her Harvard roommate, Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen, also hailed from a royal family marred by untimely death.

Bhutto began to wonder how American-style activism might be applied to her homeland. Upon her return to Pakistan in 1977 after studying at Oxford, Benazir’s father was overthrown in a military coup. Before being executed, he chose her, not his eldest son, to carry his political mantle. Yet, to pursue a political career, she couldn’t remain single. Bhutto wed playboy Asif Ali Zardari in an arranged marriage.

This first woman to ever head a Muslim nation — she served two terms, 1988-90 and 1993-96 — embraced East-West and gender-role contradictions. As “Bhutto’’ shows, she shattered the Islamic glass ceiling, all the while donning a traditional head scarf. After years in exile, Bhutto was likely on her way to serving a third term when she was assassinated in 2007.

In their documentary, filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara (“Fuel’’) assemble an effective if textbook amalgam of archival footage and talking heads. The interviewees are an impressive A-list of some 30 historians, politicians, family members, and friends — from diplomat Peter Galbraith to Condoleezza Rice, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to Arianna Huffington. Woven into the narrative of “Bhutto’’ is the parallel plot of US and Soviet military involvement in the region, which set the stage for the rise of Al Qaeda. Careening 3-D graphics of newspaper headlines and maps — the Ken Burns effect on steroids — and a thumping soundtrack inject unnecessary adrenaline into a story already dramatic enough.

No surprise, the portrait here is largely reverential: One of the producers, political consultant Mark Siegel, a Bhutto confidant, appears numerous times to sing her praises. “Bhutto’’ downplays the money-laundering accusations she and her husband faced. (Never convicted, Zardari was held for eight years in prison. He now serves as president, elected in 2008.) As counterpoint, we do get conspiratorial talk from Fatima Bhutto, estranged daughter of Benazir’s brother and political rival Murtaza Bhutto. The filmmakers leave other rocks unturned: Scoring a face-to-face with Musharraf, since implicated in the assassination by a UN investigation, they fail to ask hardball questions.

People called the Bhuttos “The Kennedys of Pakistan’’ and, in a parallel with our losses, the Pakistanis suffered the untimely deaths of Benazir, her father, and her two brothers. In “Bhutto,’’ at least, footage of her fiery speeches keeps her passion and promise alive, and an audio interview running throughout serves as a haunting reminder of what path Pakistan might have taken.

At one point, Bhutto says she wants to avenge her father’s death. “Bhutto’’ proves she did. “The fight for the truth is important,’’ she says. “Democracy is the greatest revenge.’’

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

BHUTTO Directed by: Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara

Starring: Tariq Ali, Peter Galbraith, Arianna Huffington, Pervez Musharraf,

Condoleezza Rice, Mark Siegel

Running time: 111 minutes

At: Kendall Square

Unrated

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