It’s hard to resist a film starring Michael B. Jordan, an actor whose face and physique confirm that God only smiles upon some of us. But even scenes in which he saunters around shirtless, spontaneously starts doing pushups or flashes a coy smile aren’t enough to keep one fully engaged in A Journal for Jordan.
The cloying romantic drama is based on a memoir of the same name by Dana Canedy, a former New York Times journalist and the current senior vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster. Published in 2008, the book, addressed to Canedy’s son, Jordan, tells a heartbreaking story of how she fell in love with his father, First Sgt. Charles M. King, a reserved man whom she admired and struggled to accept. Unfortunately, the poignant tale — rendered with precise language and vivid imagery even when it’s overly sentimental — loses some of its gracefulness in Denzel Washington’s screen adaptation.
A Journal for Jordan
The Bottom Line
Undermined by missed opportunities.
A Journal for Jordan opens in 2007, a year before the memoir’s publication. Dana (Chanté Adams) is struggling to balance her intense job as a reporter at the Times with being a single mother to a fussy toddler after Charles’ (Jordan) death. The film holds nothing back in the first few minutes, plunging into Dana’s chaotic world, which includes graphic, fragmented nightmares of her partner’s death in combat, the deluge of cars during morning rush hour and fingers clacking on keyboards at the office.
To be a Black single mother in a white industry is taxing, and everyone is worried about Dana, although she insists she is fine. During a particularly heated exchange with a white editor and reporter, the former points to her shirt, leaking with breastmilk. It’s a moment that signals an interesting potential direction for the film: Perhaps this will be a quiet observation of a woman inspired to write letters to her son as a way of wading through grief and motherhood. But A Journal for Jordan isn’t that — at least not entirely.
After a long day at the office, Dana returns to her home on the Upper East Side and sifts through a box containing King’s uniform, photos, old birthday cards and a journal he wrote for their son. She devours its pages and reading them spurs her into action. That night, she begins to write her memoir.
“Dear Jordan,” she starts. “You are just ten-months old now, but I am writing this for the young man you will be.” Just as soon as we have settled into the cadence of Dana’s life in 2007, A Journal for Jordan pulls us into the past. Dana begins recounting the story of her and Charles’ first encounter.
They met in the 90s when Dana stumbled upon Charles hanging a pointillist-style painting in her family’s home in Kentucky. A brief conversation reveals that he is the artist and a friend of her father. At her father’s encouragement, Dana makes up a story so that Charles, recently divorced, can give her a ride back to her hotel. (She’s staying there because although she loves her parents, they annoy her.) Their car trip is appropriately awkward, it’s here that Dana really begins to see Charles: his erect posture as he holds the wheel, his cautionary sensibility, his shyness and his love of what she endearingly terms “old” music.
Adams and Jordan, both incredibly beautiful people, don’t always feel like a couple over the course of this two-hour film. It could be that their chemistry seems more fraternal than erotic. Or that Virgil Williams’ screenplay leans so heavily on clichés and exposition that it strips their courtship of any mystery. Or maybe it’s that we don’t spend enough time with Charles or Dana to root for them. The time jumps feel erratic — first we’re in the 90s, then back in 2009, maybe, then 2001 and on to 2018 — and tracking them makes it harder to settle into the romance.
The couple’s blossoming love is not without its problems. With Charles training cadets in Kentucky and Dana in New York, their relationship evolves over the phone. These are some of the film’s more enjoyable moments, with Washington and editor Hughes Winborne delicately cutting and overlaying audio onto scenes of Dana and Charles rushing to make their phone dates.
After September 11 and the birth of Dana and Charles’ son, A Journal for Jordan adopts a strange tone. The film begins to seem at odds with itself, caught between peddling an imperial version of America’s ill-defined and destructive “War on Terror” and an honest portrayal of a military family. While in Iraq, Charles agrees to have a child with Dana. The conception (Charles flies back for a passionate weekend of sex), birth of Jordan (for which Charles does not return) and Charles’ death happen in quick succession, punctuated only by Dana’s exasperation with her boyfriend (they were never married) and his inability to choose family over service.
The film shies away from investigating Charles’ dedication to the military, an element that surely could have strengthened the narrative, inching it closer to the complexity it’s presumably aiming for. It would have also contextualized Dana’s frustrations and perhaps added depth to her character; as is, her personality comes across in fits and spurts.
When Jordan (played by Jalon Christian) is old enough to wonder about his family’s history, he asks Dana about his father. She surrenders Charles’ journal, which inspires Jordan to pose a litany of questions: Could he meet his sister (the one from Charles’ previous marriage)? Could they visit his burial site? How did Charles die? Why did America go to war?
It’s that last question that A Journal for Jordan seems most self-conscious about and handles most clumsily. In response to it, Dana spews vague sentiments about how the answer depends on who you ask. Then she pivots to a speech on heroism.
The scene — jarring and abrupt — captures what it feels like to watch most of A Journal for Jordan. Some sequences, like Dana and Charles’ late-night phone calls or their first weekend together in New York, hit the requisite romantic-drama genre marks. But many others, especially during the film’s middle, don’t work. It’s ultimately a mixed bag, with the final moments acquiring an emotional power that should be felt sooner.