Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Dir. Richard LaGravenese
Premiered January 5, 2007

Welcome to 2007, the best year for the American moviegoer possibly ever. While a lot of people might prefer 1939 or 1968 or even (Jesus) 1999, 2007 stands out to me personally, and to that end I’ve decided to review an indeterminate number of films from that year, in chronological order. Originally I wanted to showcase the highlights of that year, but in all honesty, curiosity got the better of me with some of these. For that reason, I’ve decided to start in the very first weekend of the year with Freedom Writers.

January is typically peak season for abortive Oscar Bait; the kinds of movies with the pedigree and trademarks of an award winner, but which the studio or distributor has decided isn’t worth it. Is that the case with Freedom Writers?

Well, yes. Inspirational teacher movies had been a joke since “you’re the man now, dog.” School of Rock had been out four years by this time; Hamlet 2 was only a year away. It would have taken a serious re-invention and update to make the genre relevant, and Freedom Writers is anything but. Set in 1990s gangland Long Beach, Hillary Swank plays a rookie teacher who tries to make a difference (say it with me) but struggles to reach these kids until she hits on something new: give them journals to write about their own experiences.

This is actually a good innovation; I haven’t actually seen that many teacher movies, but I’ve seen enough to know that the main character usually tries to get in good with the kids to relate to the pop culture of the time in a way that comes off as condescending and instantly dates the film. Instead of bending over backwards like that, she realizes that the kids need to be heard. I actually really like that. And for that alone, it’s watchable.

Unfortunately, the film struggles to make a coherent plot around it. Freedom Writers is based on a true story, but you can tell where the truth ends and the bad screenwriting begins. The movie’s full of ancillary characters whose attitudes change just to buttress Swank’s arc. Imelda Staunton plays a prissy, bigoted villain that exists mainly to turn up her nose and say something along the lines of “this is mostunorthodox!” The protagonist’s father (Scott Glenn) and husband (Patrick Dempsey) are all over the place too, despite barely being in the movie. And it’s really not necessary. Furthermore, there’s no humor in the film. It’s not soul-crushingly dour, but it comes of as rote and uninspired. C

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007

Nations have a weird habit of romanticizing the savage past, even when there are people around who still remember the truth. There is perhaps no better example of this than Jesse James, a late-19th century outlaw/terrorist who was feared and hated right until he died.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the story of Robert Ford, a Jesse fanboy who joins the James gang with his brother, only for the eldest of the group (Sam Shepard) to declare that it’s time to give up the life of an outlaw. As the gang disintegrates, Jesse (Brad Pitt) only becomes more dangerous and unpredictable, leading Ford to side with the state of Missouri and take him out. At first, Ford is a hero, and spends the next year recreating the assassination on Broadway, but public opinion gradually and mysteriously turns in the late Jesse James’ favour. Finding himself in constant danger from the drunken mob, Ford retreats from public life.

In a year full of incredible cinema, and one chock full of westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nevertheless a highlight. The only problem is that while the James Gang’s dysfunction is given two hours of screen time, Ford’s eventual fate gets only 45 minutes. Apparently, the film was originally developed in two parts, with the assassination at the midpoint, but the studios intervened. Somewhere out there is a four-hour director’s cut that gives the whole story the time it deserves. I only hope that someday we will be able to see it. A-