'Bhutto': For Pakistan's Heroine, A Hagiography

Benazir Bhutto

hide captionBenazir Bhutto, here attending a 1993 campaign rally, was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation. In her struggle to reform and modernize Pakistan, she met with imprisonment, exile, charges of corruption and finally assassination.

Robert Nickelsberg/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Bhutto

  • Director: Duane Baughman, Johnny O’Hara
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 111 minutes

Not rated.

A new documentary about Benazir Bhutto lets a full hour go by before entertaining the mildest doubts about its subject, the hugely popular prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated on her triumphant return to Karachi from exile in 2007.

Bhutto is smart and thorough on the inflamed history of Pakistan. But as a portrait of the first woman elected head of state in an Islamic nation, it comes closer to hero-worship than to considered biography. Front-loaded with glowing testimonials from family and FOB's East and West, the movie gives a startling degree of face time to its own co-producer, Mark Siegel, a political consultant and close friend of Bhutto who co-authored a book with her.

The director, Duane Baughman, also a political consultant, helped get Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton elected, so he knows how to brand a public figure, dead or alive.

Not that this particular public figure needs much enlarging. Bhutto’s sense of mission and her personal courage, as she returned again and again to try and democratize a nation whose military leaders blithely murdered their opposition, are beyond dispute. Like her adored father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected head of state (and the creator of its nuclear program), she struggled to bring basic services to a country mired in poverty, illiteracy and chronic conflict across its volatile borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran — to say nothing of its ambivalent dependency on a United States worried to death by the Taliban, al-Qaida and the enriched uranium in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals.

About Bhutto’s failings and mistakes, however, the film is discreet to the point of squeamishness. Luckily, this magnificently complicated woman’s contradictions tumble out anyway. Almost despite itself, the movie offers a riveting melodrama about a daddy’s girl born into a close but feuding Western-educated dynasty known both for its populist politics and its champagne tastes. (The Bhuttos were thought of — admiringly, Baughman implies, though given the straits in which most Pakistanis live, one wonders — as the Kennedys of Pakistan.)

From grieving family and friends (inevitably, Arianna Huffington was a pal at Oxford), we learn of a serious-minded young woman freed from her burqa by Dad while still in her teens. At Harvard, where she roomed with Kathleen Kennedy, she absorbed feminism and leftist politics.

Asif Ali Zardari i i

hide captionAfter Bhutto's murder, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party — and the nation's new president.

Bhutto Film, LLC
Asif Ali Zardari

After Bhutto's murder, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party — and the nation's new president.

Bhutto Film, LLC

Yet later she willingly submitted to an arranged marriage with a Karachi playboy-entrepreneur, Asif Ali Zardari, who has been Pakistan’s president since the fall of Pervez Musharraf in 2008. She prayed to Allah in public, yet worked hard to bring schooling to girls in an Islamic state vehemently opposed to rights for women.

Bhutto inherited her father’s charm, charisma and elegant tailoring, as well as his preference for backroom wheeler-dealing. Remarkably, her father chose Benazir over her two brothers as his successor, and her political career eerily echoed his, zigzagging between triumph, prison, exile and return to repeated rapturous welcomes from adoring masses.

Bookended by footage of the sniper fire and suicide bombing that killed her, Bhutto faithfully follows the hectic arcs of her life and death. Yet the movie glides smoothly past the corruption charges — never proved or disproved — that led to Bhutto's exile and her husband's imprisonment, effectively dismissing them as trumped up by her enemies. Much time is spent, meanwhile, on the moving but sentimental memories of her tearful family, topped up with new but unedifying audiotapes of Bhutto herself outlining her ideals, the harshness of her incarceration in a Pakistani prison and the loneliness of exile in Dubai.

Bhutto could stand a less adulatory tone — and more reliable skeptics than her clearly disgruntled niece, for instance, when it comes to topics such as Bhutto's role in the mysterious plane crash that killed the military dictator responsible for her father's murder. Despite herself, and for all her efforts toward reconciliation, Bhutto proved an enormously polarizing figure.

Perhaps she had no choice, in a country so riven by internal strife and external threat. At its best, Bhutto is a fascinating study in the difficulties of bringing democracy to a radically unstable nation plagued by its colonial legacy, by the cowboy politics of a dictatorial military, by daily terrorism and the sporadic interventions of world powers arguably less interested in rural voting rights than in pushing their own interests on the global stage.

Bhutto’s untimely death at 54 years old was a private tragedy and a tremendous loss for a country desperate for moderate leadership. But she was a heroine, not a saint. Eliding this distinction, Bhutto unwittingly diminishes her.

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