LifeLife offers a respite from the ongoing debate over whether critics and moviegoers unfairly savage films based on true stories by rigorously fact checking them and then offering up discrepancies between the celluloid world and the historical record. The inclination for a full forensic examination of movies like The Imitation Game, Selma, and American Sniper will more likely intensify than abate. The noxious rejoinder that “it’s only a movie” never satisfied and, in the foreseeable future, will certainly not even given pause to those who return from the multiplex and proceed directly to Google.

While a slavish devotion to fact is creatively stifling, studios, directors, and screenwriters that attempt to manipulate audience emotions by falsely assuring them what they are about to see actually occurred, when in fact, key points are as fictional as Freddy Krueger, do so at the risk of the credibility of the entire project. Caveat venditor. If you want a solution, rewatch the opening of the magnificent Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and see how screenwriter William Goldman, who had extensively researched the legendary outlaws, handled it.

“Most of what follows is true,” flashes up on the screen as the story begins to unfold.

Anton Corbijn’s new film, Life, might seem to invite the standard Internet examination of the moment. The story, as written by screenwriter Luke Davies, shows real people in a real event. Specifically, the film focuses on James Dean and Dennis Stock, the American icon and a freelance photographer, who collaborated on a photo spread for the pages of Life magazine that included the seminal shot, “James Dean Haunted Times Square.”

Yet, in fact, whether or not the events of the film occurred in the order in which they are depicted, in the manner in which they are depicted, between the individuals in the script as depicted, or, for that matter, at all, does not trouble the viewer all that much. Almost from the moment of his death, James Dean ceased from ever having existed as an actual person. With the tragic car accident in 1955 when he was only 24 years old, Dean became forever the face of lost youth. His film persona as the moody, rebellious young man, coming as it did on the cusp of such profound societal upheaval that undermined and upended traditional establishment rules in almost every American institution, assured him of a narrow, but unshakeable immortality.

Works of art, including films, that concern James Dean abide by the Liberty Valance rule: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. To its credit, Life furthers the legend; it does not waste time trying to set an elusive record straight. Dean, as effectively portrayed by Dane DeHaan, is the New Cool, the Hep Cat who flips out the squares like studio head Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley). Dean’s ahead of his time, doing bennies and black chicks, speaking his mind to the press, and blowing off the PR hacks.

Stock (Robert Pattinson), on the other hand, is an unhappy voyeur, a photographer who came to the trade because he needed a trade rather than to pursue a sense of art. Yet, too many red carpets and too much time on film sets shooting stills has left him wanting validation. He’s reduced to pitching projects through his agent, who tries to steer him back to the work that’s providing a steady paycheck, although little of the money gets back to his ex-wife or child. Dean is his best hope to break out, maybe even his last hope.

Somehow, as the film and the historical record both show, Dean and Stock came together for a set of black-and-white photos that have become among the recognizable celebrity shots of the last 60 years.  James Dean getting a hair cut, James Dean passed out in a night club, and, yes, James Dean walking though a gloomy rain storm in Times Square.

The film sluggishly works its way to these moments. Director Corbijn confirms once again, as he illustrated in previous films The American and A Most Wanted Man, that pacing is not his strong point. Life is lifeless at times, like a film adaptation of one of Dean’s hangovers. The acting is uneven as well. Elocution is an issue for both the leads in the early going with DeHaan particularly guilty in presenting mumbling as an interpretation of Dean’s intensity. Pattinson, meanwhile, seems too removed from the proceedings initially as if he were wondering whether he would have made a better Dean. Both grow in their respective roles as the film unspools.

Among the supporting cast, Alessandra Mastronardi sizzles as Dean’s love interest, Pier Angeli, while  Kelly McCreary as Eartha Kitt, sadly, does not. Kingsley plays a cartoonish studio boss in his embodiment of Warner. The production vales are predictable with 1950’s America portrayed as a place of gleaming nostalgia whether the location is Los Angeles, Manhattan, or a farm in Indiana. Legendary locations for a legendary story – so why get hung up on the grimy details of life before hand sanitizer?

We know the ending of this story. We know what happens to Dean. We know that the pictures are published. Still, we wait to see them, and they are provided at the end of Life. In those final moments, we receive confirmation that the one event depicted in the movie that we actually hope occurred did, in fact, take place. A single photograph of Dean and Stock, taken at a high school dance in Indiana, flashes up on the screen, providing the most genuinely moving instance in the 111-minute runtime.

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