The movie’s title, of course, refers to Life Magazine, a now-defunct (since 1972) but once very influential American publication. It was a weekly news magazine best known for its photojournalism; many Life photographs have taken on a larger significance, and come to represent an era, movement, or subculture. One well known example is the series of simple, candid photographs of a young James Dean, taken in 1955 as Dean was on the verge of stardom, by an unknown photographer named Dennis Stock. The series of images not only helped to create Dean’s distinctive mystique, it also established Dennis Stock as one of the most respected and sought-after photographers in the U.S.
Life is the story of how those photographs came about.
The script takes a slightly surprising direction, in choosing to make Dennis Stock the central character, rather than the far more charismatic James Dean. This approach does have the advantage of allowing the audience to see Dean’s personality and potential through the eyes of an ordinary outsider, and to become acquainted with him gradually, as Stock himself does.
Dennis Stock, as it was later discovered, was an extremely talented photographer with an excellent instinct for finding interesting subjects. By 1955, however, Stock had met with little success in his field, and was barely able to support himself with minor and uninspiring assignments. When he is introduced to James Dean, he is immediately taken with the young actor’s appearance and mannerisms. His intuition tells him Dean is destined for fame and would be an intriguing subject, and he begins petitioning for a chance to photograph him. When Dean is signed on by a major movie studio and completes East of Eden, Stock is finally granted an assignment from Life Magazine to provide photographs for a profile of Dean.
As Stock accompanies Dean on his daily activities, and travels with him to his family’s home in rural Indiana, a tenuous friendship develops between the two men. Their differences provide an interesting contrast: Stock is a man who is confident in his work and sure of his artistic vision, but is insecure and inept in every other area of his life. He finds himself envious of Dean’s calm assurance, and a little resentful at feeling like an awkward hanger-on. None of this detracts from his artistic vision, however, and the photographs produced during this period clearly conveyed James Dean’s personality to the world.
The film also follows James Dean, whose film career is just beginning to flourish. Dean wants only to act well and continue to learn and improve, but is caught up in the demands imposed on him by a contract with a Hollywood movie studio, which is less interested in film as an art form than with creating a public persona that will bring them a return on their investment. The degree to which studios controlled actors’ personal lives at the time is astonishing, and we share Dean’s frustration with it.
Dane DeHaan is remarkably good as James Dean, recreating his familiar vocal and physical mannerisms without falling into caricature, and capturing both the retiring personality and the intense passion for his work. Dennis Stock is played by Robert Pattinson in a believable but appropriately unaggressive way, stepping back and allowing DeHaan’s James Dean to steal the show even as a secondary character.
Unfortunately, in spite of good acting and a quality production all around, there is simply not enough of a story to carry the film. The plot is spread too thin, and although the background information will be interesting to film buffs, it is not sufficient for a full length movie. The press release for Life describes it as “a snapshot in time” and that description is all too accurate. Perhaps director Anton Corbjin’s past experience, which is mostly in celebrity documentaries, leads him to conclude that Dean’s legacy alone is enough. It may be worth watching just to see what a talented actor does with the intimidating challenge of playing James Dean, and to pick up some minor details about Dean’s life and career, and a little gossip about fellow ‘50s actors and film studios, not to mention the events behind some famous and iconic photographs; but although beautifully filmed and well acted, it is a thin story, the kind that can be watched casually while carrying on other activities.