Angelina Jolie’s celebrity makes her artistic ambitions easy to mock, but with “First They Killed My Father,” opening Friday at the same time that it begins streaming on Netflix, she proves she’s worth reckoning with as a director — for reasons good and bad. She has made an engrossing, dynamically shot movie that moves with real fluidity and complexity. Yet she also succumbs to familiar ideological pitfalls. The standard complaints about cultural appropriation, point of view and the ethics of aestheticizing war all apply.
The movie’s source is Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge, which captured Phnom Penh when she was 5 and ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Ms. Jolie announces her respect for the material almost immediately by putting the titles in Khmer as well as in English, only to undercut that gesture with a slick, scene-setting montage, glibly scored to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” The sequence juxtaposes footage of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others with imagery of the United States’ bombing raids in Cambodia.
Still, the stab at an energetic overture isn’t totally unwelcome, since the previous war movies Ms. Jolie directed — “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011) and “Unbroken” (2014) — were both earnest slogs. “First They Killed My Father” is never that.
The story proper begins in Phnom Penh, where the young Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) lives comfortably with her middle-class family, which is loyal to the outgoing government. Her father (Kompheak Phoeung) is a captain in the military police. A moment in which Loung reaches for the sky, trying to touch a helicopter overhead, recalls Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun,” a movie that, with its child’s-eye view of war as a time of horror and wonder, might well have served as a template.
The screenplay — Ms. Jolie and Ms. Ung are credited as a writing team — manages the tricky task of providing enough information to push the film along while only rarely straying beyond what a child might comprehend. Loung soon discovers that she and her family, with whom she’s been forced to evacuate the capital, won’t be returning home after the promised three days. She learns…