Bhutto, a documentary about the life and assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of privilege and violence twice elected Pakistan’s prime minister and twice forced out of office on corruption charges, is in many ways frustratingly out of touch with today’s news. Even though Bhutto’s life was full of political ambition, democratic idealism and high drama, the film - shown at Sundance in 2010 and tonight on PBS’s Independent Lens series - can’t directly address the post-Bin Laden conversation about the U.S.’s fraught relations with Pakistan.
But buried in this smartly made yet glowingly positive film is a bit of historical context so lucid it’s like a lightbulb turning on.
Bhutto’s father, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who took power in a military coup. Soon after, when the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan became strategically important to the U.S. as a means of avoiding a Soviet takeover of the region. As the political commentator Tariq Ali mordantly explains in the doc, those events “Made this squalid dictator into a plucky fighter for freedom.” And we see how America has been making accommodations with squalid Pakistani dictators, a lesser-of-two-evils scenario, ever since.
Bhutto was no dictator, but she a wasn’t a saint either, and this film comes too close to hagiography. Two things to know before watching: Mark Siegel, the film’s producer and one of its frequent on-screen talking heads, was a friend and the co-author of Bhutto’s final book, Reconciliation. Duane Baughman, co-director with Johnny O’Hara, is a political consultant who was approached by Bhutto about working for her not long before her assassination in 2007. They’re shrewd enough to include some negative comments – that Bhutto was better at politics than governing, that those corruption charges are very sticky - but the film is clearly not interested in exploring them.
Instead it dwells on her commitment to democracy, which was truly radical in a country blighted by one military coup after another, and her extraordinary story. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she had a flash of Western glamour with bright lipstick and huge eyeglasses under a traditional headscarf. Her political success was groundbreaking for a woman in Pakistan, yet she entered an arranged marriage to Asif Ali Zardari, then known as a playboy and today Pakistan’s President.
Zardari’s rise seems improbable, but of course his role sounds more powerful than it is. As writer and political analyst Reza Aslan says on screen here, “The truth is, Pakistan is a military state,” with major decisions made by the intelligence service, the now-notorious ISI, not its elected leaders.
Yet Bhutto’s symbolic importance is real, and she was punished for it. Over the years she was held under house arrest, and after her second term as prime minister self-exiled to Dubai in 1998. She was a target of political assassins long before she was killed.
The film sustains your interest, especially in its close-up family interviews with Zardari and their three now-grown children, their two daughters tearful as they talk about how prepared she was for death. We can see that there is something deeply complex about a woman who walked defiantly into danger, yet the film doesn’t begin to explore the intriguing contradictions in her character. Returning to Pakistan to run for office for a third time in October 2007, she survived an assassination attempt as crowds greeted her on her arrival, and she was killed at a political rally two months later. There was a gunshot and a suicide bomb, but her murder has not been solved; a U.N. investigation concluded that then-President Musharraf’s government had refused to give her adequate security.
And we now know what the filmmakers didn't: that while all that was happening, less than four years ago, Osama Bin laden was hiding in his conspicuous compound in Abbottabad.