There’s no denying that Denzel Washington is a great actor. The GOAT, even. Throughout the decades, the masterful, well-distinguished, and heavily-influential performer has demonstrated his high-caliber bravado in several premier projects, with accolades to spare for his thunderous talents. He’s a once-in-a-generation-type star, complete with charisma for days and A-list star power to boot. There’s been much written and said about his acting prowess, including a celebrated podcast that’s literally titled Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. And it’s all warranted, undoubtedly. But when it comes to Washington’s work behind the camera, there’s something unfortunately lost in translation.
With 2002’s Antwone Fisher, Washington showed considerable promise as a director, at least based on the reviews. But The Great Debaters, his sophomore feature, was praised more for Washington’s control in front of the camera rather than his workmanlike direction behind it. Likewise, his third feature, Fences, is easily considered his best, but that’s a stage-to-screen adaptation that’s remembered more for his top-tier, seat-shaking acting than for his craftsmanship as a storyteller. Favoring flat angles, listless staging, and lackluster blocking, it’s clear that Washington’s previous three films were sufficiently redeemable because Washington, quite thankfully, split his time as an actor and director, allowing the Oscar winner’s rollicking confidence as a thespian to mask his uncharacteristic shakiness as a fledgling filmmaker. It was through that force of will that those movies were glued together.
But with his fourth feature, A Journal for Jordan, the first film that Washington helmed but didn’t simultaneously star in, the actor-turned-director is left devastatingly insecure, unable to hide his filmmaking mediocrity, even with the dependable talents of the continuously appealing Michael B. Jordan at the forefront. Despite his best efforts, Washington is adrift in his own unordinary instability, drowning in the material’s mawkishness and left torturously unable to give the otherwise earnest drama its proper thematic heft. It’s corny, for lack of a better word, in all the ways you wouldn’t expect from an ace talent like Washington, and it’s made even more unbearable by the vivid absence of his own commanding screen presence to give it compelling assurance. Washington will continue to be praised, deservedly, as an actor, but that only makes his continuously lukewarm career as a would-be director all the more depressing. It’s easy to praise Washington, the actor, but it’s a struggle to celebrate Washington, the filmmaker. Unfortunately, the absence of the actor’s singular, surefire screen presence means there’s little left to praise with this one.
Based on Dana Canedy’s best-selling 2008 memoir of the same name, which was inspired by the author’s New York Times autobiographical article, “From Father to Son, Last Words to Live By,” A Journal for Jordan follows our central journalist (Chanté Adams) straying to make peace with the loss of her war-bound partner. A single mother hoping to balance work and family, Dana wants to honor her late lover, 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King (Jordan), by imparting his belated wisdom into their growing child, for she believes that the best way to remember her great love is to imbue the words that he left behind with dutiful grace and hearty reflectance. From there, Dana sets out to write about the man that he was, and how she learned to fall in love with him over time. We shift back and forth in time, allowing us to see Dana and Charles as blissful partners caught up in the early days of romance, up until the events that led to his final breathing moments.
Because we follow Dana’s rose-tinted reflection, every scene with Charles has the gravity of unforeseen importance, the future knowledge that even his seemingly inconsequential interactions said a great deal about a life well-lived. But by turning Charles into a living saint, practically walking on water wherever he stepped, the war veteran is never wholly approachable. He’s idealized more than he’s actualized. He’s unfailingly polite at any and all times, he rarely raises his voice or causes strife, and he never fails to seduce and satisfy Dana in every conceivable way. He’s perfect, and the movie is flawed for that reason.
By robbing Charles of anything that could be seen as objectionable, this tragic real-life figure is turned into a walking, talking Ken doll, someone who is meant to be romanticized rather than memorialized. It’s so idyllic, you wonder if Washington is trying to make the gender-swapped version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Whatever faults he might’ve had are ironed out, sanding off every conceivable edge and favoring fond aggrandizing over nuanced understanding. Thus, A Journal for Jordan leaves us with a holier-than-thou perception of the celebrated man that’s too squeaky clean to be appropriately sincere.
Whatever intentions were in place for Washington and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams (Mudbound), their talents are not authentically brought to screen. Sgt. Charles can’t feel tangible because there’s a glossy, Hallmark-esque quality to this portrayal that doesn’t seem respectful. Because it doesn’t honor his lost humanity, favoring sensationalism instead. I’m not trying to suggest that he wasn’t noble or kind, far from it. If anything, we don’t really get to know the guy because we don’t have a proper understanding of how he really was, only the vague values he tried to impart. His greatest moments aren’t merely maudlin but manufactured, and therefore, his grave sacrifice doesn’t warrant the heart-wrenching response that it should easily wring.
And yet, it’s hard not to be charmed by Charles through Jordan’s dreamy, dutiful performance. While he can only do so much to make this real-life personality seem three-dimensional from a flat script, Jordan is so easily charismatic, so smoothly engaging, that it’s hard not to be won over by his sly smile and warm demeanor. There’s so much left unspoken about his character, which we can charitably call subtlety, but Jordan’s performance often suggests a hidden dynamism that reflects the integrity of the reflected man, even if the direction and screenplay do everything they can to celebrate his ultra-glamorized selflessness and lustily-filmed muscular body instead.
The movie’s better moments are when Jordan can have thoughtful chemistry with Adams, who gives a similarly earnest lead performance. Through their ample buddying, there’s an easy appeal to these carefree interactions that showcases what might be Washington’s greatest asset as a director: having two charming, eager-to-please performers prove their talents in a casual yet compelling fashion. It’s a shame that the movie’s melodramatic tendencies don’t allow such moments to come about more often. It’s so caught up in trying to lionize Charles, that it doesn’t realize how letting the viewers see him at his most humble is more suitably honorable.
Alas, even when Washington finds his stride with a few unsuspecting moments of comfort, A Journal for Jordan is hindered all too often by the director’s uninspired camerawork, predictable story mechanics, and hammy sentimentality. Even the most gently humane scenes are given an unintended and unfortunate awkwardness due to Washington’s disappointing ineptitude as a filmmaker. While it’s refreshing to see an old-fashioned, mid-budget, Black-led romantic drama for adults in theaters, one that allows Jordan to step away from action-intensive blockbusters and prove his bonafide star power once more, A Journal for Jordan is made all the more discouraging by its inability to be more than a weepy, saccharine soap opera adaptation. For a movie reflecting on the words of a man left lost, there’s a dispiriting irony to how detached from reality this movie feels, and it lacks the vibrant, confident investment that Washington, the actor, can bring even to his worst movies. Washington commands the screen like few others, but the same can’t be said for his underwhelming directing career.
A Journal for Jordan opens in theaters starting December 25. Watch the trailer here.