I can feel your accusing stares on me. "Are you really going to give a bad review to the poor little Pakistani girl who got shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to go to school?" you ask.
Malala Yousafzai would be an awesome human being even without her short life's defining event. Born in Pakistan's Swat Valley to Ziauddin Yousafzai, a Sunni Muslim school teacher and political activist, Malala was named after a Pashtun folk hero who rallied the local tribes to defeat the British during the "Great Game" wars of the 19th century. She was not the first girl in her family to attend school—the documentary He Named Me Malala tells us her mother went to school for a couple of days before selling her books for candy—but she is the first one to actively and eagerly pursue an education. When the Taliban came to the family's sheltered valley, they declared that educating women was un-Islamic. Malala gained international attention by writing a blog about the Taliban's repression of women for the BBC, and the fundamentalist zealots retaliated by hunting her down and shooting her in the head, along with three other girls on the bus. She miraculously survived the attack, and was flown to England for lifesaving surgery, and, after extensive rehabilitation, she can now function normally. She has used her second lease on life to campaign tirelessly for women's rights and promote peace through education. In 2014, she became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. Onscreen, she is funny, bright-eyed, fiercely intelligent, and fearless. I'm not going to give her a bad review.
I am going to give director Davis Guggenheim a bad review. The biggest thing I learned from directing a documentary is that you are always going to be judged first and foremost for your choice of subject. Malala, with a unique story and a compelling screen presence, is the perfect subject. There's plenty of drama in the story of Malala's resistance to the Taliban and the price they exacted from her. So why does Guggenheim wait until the end of the movie to tell it? By the time we get to the meat of the story, we've already been hanging out with Malala, Ziauddin, her brothers, some Kenyan girls, Hillary Clinton, and Bono for 40 minutes. It's a completely inexplicable and infuriating choice, especially coming from the director who won the 2007 Best Documentary Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. For that film, which is as important today as when it was released, he managed to craft a compelling story around a PowerPoint presentation. Eight years later, with an even better central character and a life-or-death narrative, he completely botches it. The film's running time is only 88 minutes, but thanks to the too-clever-by-half structure, it feels much longer.
Even beyond Malala, there's plenty of interesting material to work with here, such as the inside explanation of the Taliban's appeal to the uneducated populations. (It involves talk radio.) But He Named Me Malala is simply unable to present it in a coherent fashion. I'm still scratching my head over how Guggenheim could miss such a slam dunk. Malala and the women worldwide whom she inspires deserve better.