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Denzel Washington has been racking up praise for his turn in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a new retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy opening in theaters on Christmas Day. That’s also the release date of “A Journal for Jordan,” Washington’s latest directorial effort and a baffling subpar melodrama boasting the quality of a made-for-TV movie in its writing, acting, and cinematic flair. Talk about a jarring Washington double feature.
Just as perplexing is that Virgil Williams, who co-wrote “Mudbound” alongside Dee Rees, is behind this unthinkably hackneyed adaption of Dana Canedy’s bestselling book “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor.” The tome was in turn developed from her New York Times article “From Father to Son, Last Words to Live By.”
The fact-based account tracks Canedy’s relationship with her late partner, 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King, weaving together the writings he left behind for their son with her own process of remembrance. Time jumps abound over the two decades the story spans, but as Dana (Chanté Adams), then a journalist at The New York Times, decides to start writing in 2007, just a year after King’s passing, she begins with their first meeting in the late 1990s.
Charles (Michael B. Jordan), already a divorced father, courts her with his gentlemanly manners at her parents’ home. Being the daughter of an unfaithful military man, Dana is hesitant but falls for this embodiment of traditional masculinity. (He prays before every meal and always walks on the outside of the sidewalk.) From then on their romance flourishes with him repeatedly visiting her in the big city.
As if to hammer in Charles’ everyday-man virtues, the film makes a strange point of his unsophisticated style of dress while at the same time highlighting his love of painting. In this portrayal, he’s given no flaws, even when he has to break his promises; his duty to his country and his men justify it. Arguments over his absence yield phone-call scenes with Adam’s Dana worthy of a run-of-the-mill, mid-afternoon soap opera.
While Adams and Jordan show some momentary sparks of charm when sharing the screen, it’s astonishing, in unfortunate fashion, to see them walk through such terribly sentimental material with moments of trite broad comedy.
Adam’s considerable skill for nuance present in previous outings such as “Roxanne Roxanne” or “The Photograph” keeps her and the movie as a whole afloat with a degree of emotional authenticity, even if her performance is ultimately marred under the hammy tone. Jordan is especially one-note in playing the patriotic character, similar to his other unimpressive performance this year in the equally disappointing action thriller “Without Remorse” — in both cases, his role seems reduced to “a man’s man who’s good with guns.”
Shock prevails as one remembers that Washington has excelled at the helm multiple times before in feature filmmaking, as recently as 2016’s “Fences,” which earned Viola Davis an Academy Award, which makes “Journal” come off as a real head-scratcher, an utterly saccharine and sanctimonious misfire.
Aesthetically dated even in its contemporary scenes, “Journal” is shot and edited with pacing and framing choices akin to a low-budget sitcom in its interiors and a Lifetime movie elsewhere. Lifeless in its drab color palette that makes every element on screen seem like a stock prop borrowed from another set, the film at least pays attention to period details, specifically cellphone and computer technology. Only in the war sequences, particularly an explosion sequence, does the production value improve minimally.
As harmlessly wholesome as “Journal” may appear, its hyper-focus on the male characters — Charles and eventually Jordan — feels like a disservice to the professional achievements of its female protagonist. Whatever might have been the focus of Dana’s life, her journalistic efforts or any personal pursuits unrelated to Charles, disappear from the plot once she becomes his girlfriend. Her entire arc as a character revolves around waiting for him or talking about him.
Once this ordeal reaches 2018, as young Jordan (Jalon Christian) wants to learn more about his father and starts taking on some of his traits, the screenplay doubles down on its parade of platitudes expressed in the most blatantly clichéd lines of dialogue: “Love is the only thing worth fighting for,“ or “That’s what heroes do.” Underexplored but nonetheless important in this section is the mention of Jordan’s lighter skin, attributed to Charles’ mother, and how Jordan’s Black identity is questioned.
“A Journal for Jordan” does convey a positive portrayal of a Black family, even idealistic in conservative America’s eyes, in that it centers on career-driven individuals without major financial struggles, but its presentation and worldview borders on military propaganda. Certainly among the worst films of the year considering the reputable talent involved, this inspirational drama stains Washington’s directorial filmography.
“A Journal for Jordan” opens in US theaters Dec. 25.