The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A Journal for Jordan’ is a well-meaning but inert slice of true-life melodrama

Chanté Adams, left, and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan.” (David Lee/Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures)
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(2.5 stars)

Early in “A Journal for Jordan,” a mother reads her toddler a message, left by the boy’s late father: “Dear Jordan: I want you to know that it’s okay for boys to cry.” Opening with a life lesson like that virtually guarantees a three-hankie tear-jerker. But the film doesn’t quite deliver on that promise.

The title is taken from the written legacy of an Army officer, killed in action in Iraq in 2006, who left behind the eponymous inspirational document for his child. As directed by Denzel Washington — behind the camera for the first time since the Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Fences” — the two talented, good-looking leads (Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan) deliver emotionally restrained performances, matching the military precision of the film’s protagonist.

Yet while First Sgt. Charles Monroe King and his fiancee Dana Canedy are rendered with sensitivity and intelligence by Jordan and Adams, the characters rarely break out of formation to bring this story to life.

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In some ways, the characters are opposites. Charles is reticent and disciplined; when he’s not running soldiers through demanding drills, he’s a painter, using the pointillist technique favored by Georges Seurat. Dana is a journalist, working at her dream job at the New York Times. She can be a bit scattered, sleeping in late before her pivotal first date with Charles.

Adapted from Canedy’s memoir, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor,” Virgil Williams’s script frequently shifts the timeline, veering from Dana’s struggles as a single mother to her developing rapport with Charles, and forward to a growing Jordan (played as an adolescent by Jalon Christian). Sometimes the temporal whiplash works; right before Dana makes her fateful first meeting with Charles, she’s driving on a rural highway, singing along to Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World,” which establishes the ’90s time frame and Dana’s searching, hopeful character.

As the courtship unfolds, Washington maintains a slow pace, raising eyebrows briefly when the camera lingers on Dana’s bare leg as she’s lying in bed, trying to keep a long-distance relationship going over the phone. Maybe it’s a little leering, but, as Charles is getting to know Dana, we are too.

Washington pieces together the central relationship with details that mirror the painstaking artistic technique that Charles favors. But the big picture is more elusive. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who’s lent her keen eye to such diverse films as the 1994 documentary “Crumb” and Todd Hayne’s glam homage “Velvet Goldmine,” limits herself to an attractive but glossy palette that seems more suitable for a Hallmark movie.

Jordan is terrific as a quiet and dependable — almost saintly — figure, who instills a sense of duty and respect in his men (and in his son). This sense is echoed in his performance under the direction of Washington, a veteran actor who seems to be symbolically handing down his thespian wisdom to a younger generation. But Charles is a little too saintly. More often than not, it’s Adams who draws our attention; playing Dana as a professional who’s nevertheless prone to lose control of her emotions, she’s a strong foil for Jordan’s more stolid presence. (Stolid, but not lifeless: At a recent press screening, during a bedroom scene in which Jordan appears bare-bottomed, an audience member shouted, “Turn around!”)

It seems churlish to criticize such a well-meaning drama. Just as Charles wants to teach his son how to be a gentleman, “A Journal for Jordan” likewise champions a civility sorely lacking these days. But despite a story line that covers such fraught historical events as 9/11 and the Iraq War, the movie is too tidy to ever really feel like a living, breathing thing. Charles is at his most watchable when he’s berating his soldiers in camp, urging them to rise beyond what they think they’re capable of. “A Journal for Jordan” could have used a little more of that tough love.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some sexual material, partial nudity, drug use and strong language. 131 minutes

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