A Journal for Jordan review: Denzel Washington's unwieldy drama is nothing to write home about
A Journal for Jordan
The first one is a bland romantic comedy. In the late '90s, a young journalist named Dana Canedy (Chanté Adams) visits her parents and meets family friend First Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan), who had been trained by her father, an intimidating retired officer. They connect while she's in town, and upon her return to New York, where she lives and writes for The New York Times, they begin a long flirtation over phone calls. Finally, he visits her in the city, and after the happy awkwardness of getting reacquainted in person, they become a couple.
The film is based on the true history of the real Dana Canedy, an acclaimed journalist and publisher whose 2008 memoir A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor tells the tale of Charles and the profound, singular gift of a journal he wrote for his son while deployed in Iraq. But we're not there yet in Washington's film (adapted by Mudbound screenwriter Virgil Williams); that's another whole movie down the line.
That rom-commy first section of the film is characterized by cheesy dialogue and indulgent pacing, which half-succeeds in creating sexual tension. The middle piece — a romantic war drama — is where A Journal for Jordan truly begins to grate, as Washington relies more and more on the plot rather than the characters, who are stripped of what little nuance they had, to compel us.
That's not the fault of the two capable stars, who are the film's redemption. Jordan (Michael B., that is, not the child of the title) has little to work with but is a perceptive enough actor, and so outrageously charismatic, that we can basically accept him as this gorgeous man of almost cartoonish integrity — though it's a shame he isn't given space to be something more complicated than that. But it's Adams (who previously starred in the 2017 Sundance drama Roxanne, Roxanne) who is the movie's real saving grace. Mawkish though the film is as a whole, the actress' warmth and quiet humor lend it a core of sincerity that prevents it — at least for a while — from collapsing under its own schmaltz.
That ultimately does happen, however, with the arrival of this journal we've been awaiting, our patience diminishing, for well over an hour (the film clocks in at an unwarranted 131 minutes). The last and weakest piece of A Journal for Jordan is a sentimental drama that celebrates the wisdom Charles imparted to his son (played by Jalon Christian) and feels like it has absolutely nothing to do with most of what came before it.
There's no spoiling a movie like A Journal for Jordan, and not just because its big tragedy is revealed from the beginning. Even outside of the plot, there are no surprises in its insight or its texture, the affecting true story conveyed through obvious filmmaking. Working with Williams' screenplay and Hughes Winborne's edit, Washington tries to weave together the film's mismatched pieces with a loose framing device of Dana telling her son the story of his parents, and then incorporating pieces from Charles' journal that speak to Jordan and Dana's experience in his absence. It just doesn't work, and it really needs to work in a film like this, where the bond of these characters, unshakable across decades and continents and even mortality, is what we're asked to invest and believe in.
For a film predicated on such steadfast connection to feel so fundamentally disconnected is a terrible flaw. But is it a failure? Honestly, no. Uninspired though it is, A Journal for Jordan delivers on the heartbreak of its premise. You will weep. So if that's what you're after, you couldn't ask for anything more. Grade: C
A Journal for Jordan hits theaters Dec. 25.