Here’s the thing. Having had no pre-premiere drinks or snacks, you sit through two hours and ten minutes of a film that is in Serbo-Croatian with subtitles, okay but not great, and above all unrelentingly dark and brutal, and the expectation is to maybe slip out of the after-party as quickly as possible. After all, both the screening and the party for In the Land of Blood and Honey are in the Holocaust Museum. How rockin’ can they be? And the featured attractions, director Angelina Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, are off at Charlie Palmer Steak having dinner. Jolie introduced the film and then they left, and they’re not back. It’s late. There’s a lot of looking at watches in the milling crowd, parked in a room that feels like Treblinka with candlelight and canapes. The ample buffet tables are laid with sweets and fruit. But there’s no sign of Brangelina.
But then there they are, side by side, positioned in the corner of the room. It’s 10:30 PM, and for the next hour or more two of the most famous movie stars in the world make themselves utterly available to every guest, every camera, every dopey accolade, inquiry, and comment. At one point Jolie is surrounded by such a thick swarm of men (and a few women) that only the top of her head appears above the pinstriped shoulders of her admirers. Boyden Gray inches his way to her and then hovers. Georgetown University president Jack DeGioia poses for a picture, thoughtfully including his wife. Jolie smiles, smiles, smiles, pulling people in, taking their hands with one of hers, cradling in the other what appears to be a glass of red wine.
On the other side of the well-stocked bar—Maker’s Mark, Grey Goose, Tanqueray—Brad Pitt comes and goes and returns again. We think maybe a smoke break is involved, and who can blame him? The man is hobbled, walking with a cane, which he demurely explains is the result of a snow mishap with his daughter. He doesn’t say which one (there are three, at last count).
For a moment he is practically alone, and so we approach, first to commend him for Moneyball and then to ask if our eyes were seeing clearly and we’d actually spotted him in Jolie’s film. Pitt lights up, a big smile. “Yes, that was me,” he says. “You noticed. I got killed. I worked it for all I could. I went down twice. I wanted more blood, but no, the director. . . .” He slaps me five for recognizing his so-far secret 15 seconds on screen. And then he drifts off, because maybe he doesn’t want to criticize the director for not allowing him to spill more blood. Maybe there are limits to how much of her lover’s fictional death Jolie wanted to enact on film. Brad shot? Too awful to think about.
Pitt seems comfortable and happy to be at the party. Like almost every movie star, he’s slighter of build, not so tall, yet still oozing good looks and Midwestern charm. He’s polite. He listens to questions and replies with thoughtful answers and his own questions, not blank stares. He actually engages in conversation. He’s curious about the people he is meeting. Jolie, too, is slight. As a pair they are fine-boned, porcelain, smaller in scale as physical specimens—even her landmark lips look normal in person—and that’s perhaps the magic ingredient that allows photos and film to make them look so much bigger and better than life.
This being a Washington crowd, no one acts really stupid around them. In fact, the bodyguards stay at a distance, even though they look like they’re enacting a scene from a Secret Service movie. One young woman keeps yammering something about People.com, but Pitt ignores her. He’s more focused on another person with a cane, an older woman, whom he pulls close and poses with, side by side, cane by cane, beaming.
Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn stand nearby, talking with a friend. White House spokesman Jay Carney and his wife, Claire Shipman, lean against a brick wall, probably making the most of precious time together. Former Bush Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and his wife, Meryl, give mini reviews of the film. He calls it “important.” But is it entertaining? She says, “Well, it’s not Avatar.” No, it’s not. It’s about as a dark a film as I’ve seen, and while it captures the misery of the Bosnian war at a deeply personal level, there are no light moments, no respite from the darkness, and even the central love affair never feels fully formed.
Unless in search of immediate depression, save In the Land of Blood and Honey for a cold winter afternoon or wait until the DVD release. The film apparently cost $10 million—a drop in the bucket of modern moviemaking—so why not? Jolie didn’t need to prove her creds as an international good samaritan, but this project clearly was a passion. She says she had been scribbling on the script for a long time, as a project to learn more about the region and the war. When she thought she had something, she gave it to Pitt to read, and he encouraged her to shop it around. So she did—but without her name on it. Could an unknown have gotten this film made? No. Is it a film Jolie would have starred in? No. But still it’s an honorable effort.
When the house lights go up, there is polite applause and then we all stand up to leave the auditorium. One man says to his companion, “Phew, that was rough.” Others around him nod, eager to get to the relief of the after-party. Gaiety, even in, of all places, the Holocaust Museum.
Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg pulls on a blue scarf and slips out a side door, missing the party. But most stay late and wait for a moment with Jolie and Pitt. Other faces at the premiere: DC mayor Vincent Gray (alone, staying for the whole film but not the party); assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer, Motion Picture Association chief Chris Dodd, AOL founder Jack Davies, Susan Eisenhower, Timothy Shriver, George and Trish Vradenburg, chief of protocol Capricia Marshall, director of national intelligence Jim Clapper; proliferation expert Joe Cirincione; Kennedy insider Caroline Croft; socialites Willie and Finlay Lewis; media types Frank Sesno of George Washington University’s school of communication, and Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
When she welcomed the invited audience before the film ran, standing alone at a podium, almost nervous in her delivery, Jolie flattered all with her own accolade: “You are the ideal audience.” Given the darkness and brutality of the film, we’re not sure that’s a compliment.