Producers: Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Michael B. Jordan, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch Director: Denzel Washington Screenplay: Virgil Williams Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Chanté Adams, Jalon Christian, Robert Wisdom, Johnny M. Wu, Tamara Tunie, Vanessa Aspillaga, Susan Pourfar, Joey Brooks, Spencer Squire and Cleveland Beto Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
An old-fashioned real-life tearjerker, this adaptation of Dana Canedy’s 2008 memoir is also surprisingly stilted, given the talent on both sides of the camera. “A Journal for Jordan” is the sort of thing one would expect to find on a cable channel like Hallmark, but its pedigree has brought it a theatrical release it really doesn’t earn.
Chanté Adams plays Canedy, a frazzled New York Times reporter who visits her father (Robert Wisdom), a retired army sergeant, at his Kentucky home. There she meets First Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan), a man of impeccable manners and military bearing whom her father trained and who reveres the older man. (He’s also a fine sketch artist, a sure sign of his sensitivity.) The two hit it off, but the fact that they live so far apart—and that King is a divorced man with a young daughter in Texas he’s devoted to—are impediments to their developing a strong relationship.
Eventually, though, King visits Dana in New York City, and their romance blossoms. King’s commitments are nonetheless divided between her and the company of men he trains, and his choices sometimes occasion strain. Then 9/11 occurs, and eventually he receives orders to lead his troops to Iraq in 2004. He’s able to return for a brief time with Dana, during which she becomes pregnant, but they don’t have the opportunity to marry. Then he ships out and is killed during a mission, but not before beginning to write the titular journal addressed to his infant son. It becomes part of the cache of mementos that Dana treasures.
Ten years later Jordan (Jalon Christian) has become the butt of teasing at school because of his light skin, and asks Dana for details about the father he never knew. She brings out the journal, and adds to it the story of their courtship and romance. The boy’s reaction is immediate: he not only wants to visit King’s grave at Arlington Cemetery, but plans a memorial service there for his father’s friends, family and former comrades-in-arms. It’s clear he’s his father’s son.
The above précis is presented in chronological sequence, but the film is not. It actually begins in 2007, when Dana is desperately trying to juggle the demands of her job with caring for the then ten-month old Jordan, and when her memories of Charles lead her to begin writing her recollections, which will become, with King’s journal, the means for the boy to get to know his dad. That serves as the invitation for Virgil Williams’ script to shift back to the 1990s, when Dana and Charles met, and recount how their love grew. The progression from that point to King’s departure for Iraq in the spring of 2005 and his death in October, 2006 is fairly straightforward. The last section of the film constitutes young Jordan’s coming to know his father, and in effect deciding to pattern himself after King.
The approach Washington takes to this material is dignified, respectful and oddly staid. He, cinematographer Mayse Alberti and editor Hughes Winborne opt for a decorous, stately tone, only rarely allowing a bit of boisterous humor; even the scenes of violence and carnage in Iraq are kept fairly discreet. But inevitably there are moments when the film goes for the emotional jugular. And the unhurried pace results in an extended running-time—some two-and-a-half hours—that really does draw the story out to excessive length.
Washington elicits a similarly restrained performance from Jordan as King, a man defined by his discipline, erect bearing, attention to diet and exercise, and loyalty. It’s as impossible to disguise Jordan’s charisma as it is to mask Washington’s when he’s in front of the camera, but in this case it simmers rather than explodes. Canedy is a more volatile character, and Adams quite rightly plays her at a higher, more overtly emotional pitch. The third major cast member is Christian, and here the film has a bit of a problem. He’s a likable kid, but so bland and unemotional that there’s a mechanical feel to his gestures and line readings. The intent, presumably, was to have him mirror his father’s quiet, reserved personality; but in this case the underlying charisma is lacking.
The rest of the cast—apart from Johnny M. Wu’s engaging turn as the clerk at Dana’s apartment building and Wisdom’s gregarious Mr. Canedy—is pretty functional, but Washington achieves a tone of authenticity in the staging of the memorial service, where many at the graveside appear to be injured veterans. Marcelo Zarvos contributes a score whose temperature is as low as that of the film as a whole.
Like Canedy’s book, “A Journal for Jordan” is a dignified tribute to a courageous man who was torn from his family by war, but whose impact on his wife and son was nonetheless powerful and lasting. In straining to maintain a sense of decorum in dramatizing the family’s story, however, it vacillates uneasily between mawkishness and understatement. And ultimately high-mindedness and cloying sentiment prove poor companions.