LOS ANGELES -- The most heart-wrenching movie of the year stars Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon, Eva Mendes, Diane Lane and George Clooney -- and it's not coming to a theater near you.

"Half the Sky" premieres Monday and Tuesday night on PBS and, at first blush, you might be likely to ignore it to catch the latest rounds of "The Voice."

The premise -- famous actresses travel the world to see how females are being oppressed -- sounds like yet another attempt to make celebrities look like superheroes who can vanquish evil with mere flashes of their toothy grins.

But "Sky" is different. Casting familiar names was designed to lure viewers who might tune in to see what Eva Mendes is wearing, then stay to hear from the real superstars of this four-hour documentary: activists who have made great sacrifices to shed a light on atrocities.

The performers were more than happy to be used as bait.

"Fame and celebrity are generally so supremely bizarre, but there are occasions where you can sidle up next to something smart and important to give it some attention," said Meg Ryan, who witnessed firsthand the state of human trafficking in Cambodia.

One person with in-depth knowledge of these international horrors is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof, who, with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote the book the film is based on. Kristof serves as the film's tour guide, making sure the focus stays on crusaders such as Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, a Calcutta-based organization that provides education to the children of prostitutes.

"It's true that sometimes one can go into the regions and end up causing more harm than good in the process of trying to bring about change," Kristof said. "We're not projecting our values in India. We're trying to amplify and give expression to an extraordinarily articulate advocate of change there."

This journalistic approach doesn't prevent "Sky" from being an emotional whirlwind. There are at least four tear-inducing moments. The most powerful is when "Ugly Betty's" America Ferrera befriends a young girl who's being raised in a brothel and may be yanked out of school by her skeptical mother.

"The saying 'There but for the grace of God go I' is really close to home for me because my parents are Honduran and they immigrated to this country," the Emmy winner said. "From a very young age, my mother reminded me that another reality existed for people, and it could have been my reality. I really believe it takes very little imagination to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and say, 'What's the difference between me and that person, other than I got lucky and they didn't?'"

Oscar nominee Diane Lane, who visited Somalia, was most moved while crossing the desert with Edna Adan Ismail, a nurse dedicated to wiping out female circumcisions.

"We saw all these tortoises and she said, 'Like the tortoise, one never gets anywhere if one doesn't stick one's neck out,'" Lane recalled. "That will always live with me, that it's a shame to have a voice and not use it."

The film, which also includes commentary from Clooney and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, successfully provides a platform for stories often overlooked by the mainstream media. But WuDunn is also hopeful that some viewers will go beyond getting emotionally choked up and see this project as a call to duty.

"We're not experts in the field, but we come at it from the outside and look at it from a balanced and objective perspective," she said. "I think people can see, 'Oh, well, I'm an outsider, too. I can come and use my own normal common sense to look at this and maybe become involved, as well.'"

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin