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Josh Reviews I Am the Night

In between making Wonder Woman and the upcoming sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine continued their collaboration with the six-episode TNT mini-series, I Am the Night.  The series was created by Sam Sheridan, who wrote five of the six episodes.  Ms. Jenkins directed the first two episodes, while Victoria Mahoney directed episodes 3-4 and Carl Franklin directed episodes 5-6.  Set in the 1960s, the series follows the journey of young woman Pat Atman (India Eisley) to discover the truth about her family.  Pat, who was raised by a single African-American woman, appears to be white, but has grown up believing herself to be bi-racial.  However, when she finds a birth certificate with another name — Fauna Hodel — in her mother’s belongings, she realizes that she was adopted.  As she starts looking for her birth mother and family, she is swept up into a dangerous world of crime and privilege in Los Angeles.  Pat/Fauna’s unexpected ally in her search for the truth is a washed-up, drug-addicted reporter, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine).  Jay’s life was destroyed when he wrote a series of articles attempting to expose some of the secrets that Pat/Fauna’s birth family have been hiding.  Jay sees in her a chance to perhaps finally be able to prove the truth.

I Am the Night is an interesting bird.  It’s a competently made series.  The mystery is twisty and engaging.  The acting is top-notch.  (Chris Pine is particularly great.)  The direction is compelling and the production design is terrific; the series looks great, beautifully bringing to life a variety of different locations of the era.

The series’ main weakness is that its mix of true and fictionalized events felt somewhat uneven to me.  After watching the first episode, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly this series was about (though that did eventually become clearer), and I found myself wondering whether this was supposed to be a true crime series or a fictionalized story.  There wasn’t any text at the beginning saying that this series was based on actual events or anything like that… but then at the end of the episode (and every subsequent episode) we saw several of what looked like photos of the characters who were played by actors on the show.  The on-screen credits say that the series was “inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel.”  What exactly does that mean?  After watching the series I did some reading about it and was able to shed some light on this.  The series is based on Fauna Hodel’s memoir One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.  Fauna really existed, and much of the story of her quest to uncover the truth about her family’s past has some basis in fact, though events have been condensed and shifted in time for the series.  (For example, the climax of the mini-series takes place concurrently with the Watts riots of August, 1965.  However, while Fauna did travel to Hawaii to find her birth mother, Tamar, as depicted in episode five, those events didn’t happen until years later, in 1972.)  As the series depicted, Fauna and her mother, Tamar, did believe that there was an, um, Chinatown situation in their family, involving Tamar’s father George Hodel, who is actually someone who has been identified as a possible culprit behind the Black Dahlia killing.  Chris Pine’s character, meanwhile, was completely fabricated for the series as a way of guiding the audience through the story.  Many of the series’ most dramatic moments (such as Fauna’s capture and near-murder by George in the final episode) never happened.  (For some additional information on the truth and fiction contained within I Am the Night, click here.)

While I can understand the desire to shift true events in order to craft a more engaging story, I personally don’t tend to love when Hollywood plays with facts like this.  Although, having said that, I also recognize that it bothers me less when it works better.  Here, the overlap between reality and fiction often pulled me out of the story.  As an example: on the one hand, I was engaged when the series started investigating Fauna’s family’s possible connections to the famous Black Dahlia murder.  That was very intriguing.  On the one hand, because I know that murder was never definitively solved, it took some of the air out of the story in the final episodes, because I knew Fauna and Jay weren’t actually going to succeed in defeating George and proving his guilt.  Also, when we got Big Dramatic Events, such as the whole business in the final episode of Fauna’s being captured by George, who forced her to sit for a painting after which it was clear he intended to murder and/or rape her, it rung false to me, because I knew that if any of that had actually happened, it surely would have made the papers and incriminated George.  Because I knew that hadn’t happened, I started questioning the reality of what I was watching, which pulled me out of the story.

I also have to admit that I Am the Night felt to me like a somewhat watered down version of True Detective.  Both are dark, adult, complicated crime stories.  Both tell stories of flawed characters doing their best to unravel and drag into the light a terrifying evil.  Both sprinkle hints of weird, possibly supernatural or occult goings-on into their gritty crime stories.  But I Am the Night isn’t as dark and nihilistic as True Detective, its story isn’t as layered and complex, its direction isn’t as spectacular, and ultimately its characters aren’t quite as compelling.

But that doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t have room for crime drama stories that aren’t quite at the level of True Detective!  I didn’t mind that I Am the Night had a slightly less horrific tone (even though it is still pretty horrific at times!) or that it tells a story that, while full of twists and turns, wasn’t at the level of three-timeline complexity of True Detective.

The best thing about the series is the quality of the performances.  Chris Pine is fantastic as Jay.  He digs deeply into bringing this classic sort of broken-down investigator to life.  Yes, we’ve seen a million characters like this before.  But Mr. Pine fills Jay with light and life.  He makes it easy for us to root for this drunken, drug-addicted screw-up.  (It’s interesting that the series never builds to the moment I’d expected, in which Jay swears off drugs/booze in order to focus on the case and Doing The Right Thing.  I like that!  Jay maintains his flaws through to the end.)  This isn’t a comedic role, but Mr. Pine brings a twinkle and comic energy to Jay that shows us the man who Jay could have been, and why some people continue to be drawn to him even while he’s in the gutter.  He’s also great when things get very serious, such as Jay’s monologue in the car in episode five, in which he talks to Fauna about how his experiences in the war changed him.

India Eisley is compelling as Pat/Fauna.  Ms. Eisley shows us Pat/Fauna’s innocence but also her toughness and bravery.  The rest of the ensemble shines, too.  Jefferson Mays is very creepy as the mysterious and apparently very evil George Hodel.  Connie Nielsen is gloriously bizarre as George’s ex-wife Corinna, who seems completely disconnected from human emotion.  Leland Orser (Seven, Saving Private Ryan) is fantastic as Jay’s newspaper-writer mentor and friend Peter.  Golden Brooks is spectacular as Jimmie Lee Greenwade, Fauna’s fiery, angry adoptive mother.  Jay Paulson has a small role as Ohls, a detective and veteran who owes his life to Jay, but he makes the most of it.

The series gets a little repetitive at some points.  We get a few too many of the same types of scenes: Jay talking excitedly to Peter about how he’s on the trail of a break in the Hodel story while Peter tells Jay not to pursue it and instead to focus on the other story he’d given him; Jay getting bailed out by Ohls who acts exasperated/concerned; etc.  Some of those similar moments could have been trimmed.

The show experiments with literalizing some of the characters’ internal drama.  I was moved by the moments, sprinkled throughout the series, when we see how Jay sees the faces of the people he’s killed.  Slightly less successful were the times in which the show used bull imagery (and sounds!) to depict characters filling with anger/rage.  I liked the idea when used as a depiction of George’s madness, but I thought things got a little confusing when also used in connection to other characters as the mini-series progressed.

I should also comment that I don’t love the series’ generic title (which reminds me of a classic Batman line from Batman: The Animate Series).  I wish they’d stuck with the Fauna Hodel’s book’s title: One Day She’ll Darken, which is far more evocative and better connected to the actual story being told.

I’m glad to have finally watched I Am the Night, which had been sitting in my DVR for almost a year.  It might not have risen to the level of one of my favorite TV shows from 2019, but it’s an entertaining, well-made story, and I love that at six episodes it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I’d be interested in seeing what else this creative team could do together using the TV mini-series format.

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