The true story is found in a 2001 Esquire article entitled "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," in which Scott Anderson recounts how he and four other journalists, fueled by alcohol and mischief, halfheartedly tried to capture a notorious Bosnian war fugitive -- and almost succeeded. Something the entire Western world had allegedly been trying to do for five years, and these guys almost did it in two days. (The Esquire article is reprinted here; it's a great read.)
"The Hunting Party," spiritedly written and directed by Richard Shepard, fictionalizes some of the details, changes the names, and makes the conclusion a bit more satisfying. (Real life is infamous for leaving loose ends.) But the basics remain intact, and they make for a great yarn in the spirit of cynical war pictures like "Three Kings." In fact, it's the fictionalizations that hurt the film. When it sticks to the facts, it's a blast.
Our narrator is Duck (Terrence Howard), a news cameraman who for years traipsed through one war zone after another filming maverick TV journalist Simon West (Richard Gere) as he reported on the events in El Salvador, Kuwait, and Bosnia. Then, in the winter of 1994, Simon had a meltdown on the air, lost his network job, and fell off the radar.
As the film begins in the fall of 2000, Duck is in Sarajevo for ceremonies commemorating five years since the end of the war. He runs into Simon, always half-drunk, perpetually in need of a shave, and now freelancing news reports for underfunded outlets in places like Jamaica and Poland. Simon tells his old friend about a tip he got on a man known as The Fox, a former Serbian political leader who oversaw the rape and murder of thousands of Muslims during the war. The U.N. has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture. Simon knows where he is, and he wants to interview him. Oh, and maybe capture him, too. Hey, why not?
Duck finds the plan insane, obviously, but he goes along with it because ... well, like I said, why not? It'll be an adventure. He's been in thrilling predicaments with Simon before, and they always make for great stories afterward.
Joining them is Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of a network vice president who's just graduated from Harvard and wants to prove his worth as a real-world journalist. The ingenuity and quick-thinking skills necessary for this particular caper are not his forte, but he wants a piece of the action. The three drive out of Sarajevo and into the areas where The Fox is hailed as a demigod, believed to know all and see all, and fiercely protected by everyone.
One of the film's most outrageous details is, yes, one of the true ones: The U.N. official who helps the journalists does so because he thinks they're actually a CIA hit squad, and he'd like to see The Fox assassinated. The local U.N. office doesn't even have a list of the fugitive war criminals that it's supposedly trying to capture. The U.N. and NATO and the United States obviously aren't doing anything to catch The Fox or anyone else. As the film's closing titles sarcastically point out, it's probably because they're so busy trying to capture Osama bin Laden.
Richard Gere is having a bit of a revival lately playing silver-tongued hucksters. With his shyster role in "Chicago," the fabricator he played in this year's "The Hoax," and now the devil-may-care Simon West, he's the go-to guy for smooth talkers and con men. He and Terrence Howard have a fine time in "The Hunting Party," displaying the easy chemistry of old friends thrown slightly off-kilter by one friend's awareness that the other is becoming desperate and reckless.
The only drawback is that writer/director Shepard (whose previous film, "The Matador," was a darkly funny, under-appreciated gem) goes too far in his attempt to raise the story's stakes. In real life, the journalists were basically just goofing around. In the film, Shepard has given Simon a personal reason for hunting The Fox, and it rings false, a Hollywood cliché with no place in an otherwise fresh and original strange-but-true universe.