Although the daily experiences of its central subject may sound plucked from a potboiler, “Bhutto” is an earnest, informative and intricately researched documentary about the life and history-making career of Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007 while campaigning in Pakistan.
While too conventionally made and sympathetically toned to constitute a knockout or revelatory portrait of the mold-breaking but tainted former prime minister, the film is a high-caliber, tidbit-rich, gripping combination of family saga, celebrity profile, political thriller and Pakistani-history lesson.
Born in 1953 into a family likened to the Kennedys for its quality of seeming blessed and cursed in grand and tragic proportions, Bhutto attended Harvard and Oxford, was impressed by early-1970s antiwar activism, and was chosen by her overthrown (and eventually hanged) prime-minister father, over his oldest son, to succeed him politically.
In 1988, the 35-year-old Bhutto was sworn in as prime minister, becoming the first woman to lead a Muslim country. She championed democracy, calling it the “greatest revenge” for her father’s death.
Bhutto served two terms, each ending when she was accused of corruption (charges that she denied).
In 2007, she returned from exile to run for office again and was killed while attending a campaign rally. The then-government of Pervez Musharraf has been implicated in her death.
Other developments include the killings of Bhutto’s two brothers, a hijacking, a family feud, and Bhutto’s arranged marriage to businessman Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan’s current president).
In a not particularly extraordinary manner, filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara detail the above-mentioned dramas via the staples of interviews, footage and factoids. And while they include critics of Bhutto (including niece Fatima), their clear admiration for Bhutto translates into a seeming reluctance to seriously explore the murkier aspects of her legacy, including the corruption accusations made against Bhutto and her husband.
Still, the film is an impressive and exhilarating close-up look at a passionate and courageous leader who, whatever her failings (and they may have been substantial), smashed Islam’s glass ceiling and stood for democracy in a society where the military was used to calling the shots. She also eradicated polio and freed political prisoners in Pakistan.
The film additionally succeeds as a portrait of Pakistan. Significant points include the observation that the United States helped bolster Osama bin Laden when, obsessed with combating the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, it poured money, unconditionally, into Pakistan.
Interviewees include family members, scholar Reza Aslan, diplomat Peter Galbraith, columnist Arianna Huffington, and RFK daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who, in a kink of circumstance boosting the Kennedy-Bhutto comparisons, was Bhutto’s college roommate.
With Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, Reza Aslan, Peter Galbraith
Directed by Duane Baughman, Johnny O’Hara
Written by Johnny O’Hara
Running time 1 hour 51 minutes