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TIFF 2019: Just Mercy, The Aeronauts, Seberg

Festival season brings a deluge of films that open the same way – with some variation on a title card that reads “this is based on a true story.” It feels like there are more movies than ever this season that are reaching for that biopic glory that often leads to awards. Three of the four films that I saw on my second day were true story pics and there are many more to come, including “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Dolemite is My Name,” “Radioactive,” and “Harriet.” The three in this particular piece share essentially nothing in common narratively except they’re all in that awards season river of true stories, hoping to stand out in an increasingly large crowd. Sadly, only one of them works for me, and it’s a film that most people will end up watching at home.

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The most high profile of the three, and the only one world premiering at TIFF, is Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” a star-studded appeal to hold on to hope and kindness against the cruel and often racially-biased injustices of the world. Who can argue with that, right? The film undeniably preaches things in which I believe, including the general abolition of capital punishment in this country, but it does so in such a superficial manner, unable to get down to the bone of the story it’s trying to tell.

The great Michael B. Jordan finds the right level of intellectual passion to play Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard law graduate who moves down to Alabama and opens a small office dedicated to doing something that’s never been done in the state—get innocent men off death row. Working with Eva Ansley (a shockingly wasted Brie Larson), they take on the most challenging cases at the W.C. Holman Correction Facility, where we meet a vet (a movie-stealing Rob Morgan) whose PTSD led to a very bad decision and a man (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who was arrested basically because of the color of his skin. Most impactfully, Bryan meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man so clearly innocent of the crime for which he’s about to be executed that it’s repulsive he ever ended up behind bars, much less on death row. He was a scapegoat for a case that racist cops needed to solve and an overzealous prosecutor (a caricaturish Rafe Spall) pushed through the courts. Can Bryan save Walter’s life?

Likely to keep a family-friendly rating and increase box office, a lot of the story of “Just Mercy” feels sanitized for mass consumption. There’s too little anger and dirt and fear in this story. I thought of Stephan James’ eyes near the end of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which convey the truth of being behind bars more than any shot in this film. It’s a film that’s easy to admire in its earnest intentions, but that I kept wanting to feel.

At least the filmmakers behind “Just Mercy” were certain of the story they wanted to tell—the same cannot be said for Benedict Andrews“Seberg,” a film that lacks a consistent POV or thematic purpose to such a degree that it becomes grating. Yes, a film that stars the wonderful Kristen Stewart as the fascinating Jean Seberg wears out its welcome at under 100 minutes—I’m just as shocked as you are. But this is a textbook example of how everyone involved in a true story project needs to ask why they’re telling instead of just going through the motions. One senses that someone thought, “KStew as a mysterious cinematic legend will write itself.” It does not.

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“Seberg” starts in May 1968, well after the infamous filming of Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan,” during which Seberg was burned and forever changed. Made an international icon because of her work with Godard, this Seberg is struggling to figure out what’s next—an agent played by Stephen Root encourages her to audition for “Paint Your Wagon”—as she leaves her husband behind in France to travel to her home in Los Angeles. On the plane, she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a player in the Black Panther Party, and she lifts her fist in alliance with him on the tarmac, getting the immediate attention of the authorities.

Before you know it, Seberg is being closely monitored by the Feds, led by Agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and assisted by a racist, sexist monster of a G-man played by Vince Vaughn. For an inexplicable reason, Andrews and his screenwriters parallel Seberg’s story with Solomon’s, not realizing that this dilutes the entire point of the view of the film. "Seberg" wants to be a story of how celebrity culture and activism mix, about government intervention (and the horror of COINTELPRO), about how the Black Panther movement was monitored, and also a character piece about an actress and an agent who never should have crossed paths. None of these threads are explored with any depth. It’s the kind of script that thinks, “If you can change one mind, you can change the world” is deep enough that they actually repeat it. Any film with a cast this magnetic—I didn’t even mention Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beetz—that finds a way to waste them all is the sort of cinematic crime that the authorities should actually investigate.

It shocks no one more than me that I enjoyed another Amazon film at this year’s fest that’s loosely based on the truth a great deal more—Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts.” After a relatively muted response at Telluride (and given how much I dislike “The Theory of Everything”), I had low expectations, but this is the kind of adventure/survival tale that isn’t made well that often anymore. When it focuses on its main plot, it’s an effective saga of two people who did the impossible, rising higher above the earth than any man or woman ever had before. With ace cinematography and sound design, and a truly engaging performance from its female lead, this one surprised me, and if you have a chance to see it in theaters before its eventual Amazon release, you should take it.

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“Theory” stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne reunite in Harper’s story as a pair of balloonists. Redmayne is a man convinced that breaking the height record will teach them things about weather that they never knew—he’s basically inventing modern meteorology. But he needs a co-pilot, and he finds one in the adventurous Amelia Wren, played by Jones. Wren is a showman, whose husband died in a balloon accident, and Redmayne’s James Glaisher is a man who’s always had something to prove to those who doubted him. In other words, they’re both going to find the closure they need in life above the clouds.

That’s a given, but what’s unexpected is the fun adventure tone of the time that “The Aeronauts” spends in the air. Of course, the pair face a number of unexpected hurdles, including a storm that Glaisher was convinced wouldn’t happen and eventual frostbite. “The Aeronauts” becomes a survival tale, and Jones becomes an unexpected action heroine. I wish the whole film stayed in the air—when it goes to flashbacks to fill in the backgrounds of the two, it gets flat and predictable—but enough of it does to warrant a look. The only shame is that this will likely be seen by most on small screens. It’s an old-fashioned adventure, the kind that deserves the biggest screen and loudest sound system you can find.  

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