After 2017’s mega-hit Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine have found time before the sequel to squeeze in a mini-series. With Jenkins producing and directing two episodes and Pine producing and starring, it seems as if they are now a team to be reckoned with. I Am the Night is loosely based on the true story of Fauna Hodel (played here by India Eisley), a girl who grew up believing one thing about her parents and learned at around the age of 16 that it was all a lie. She travels to Los Angeles in search of her real family and meets journalist Jay Singletary (Pine) who is also pursuing his own story. Together they are led into the world of the sinister doctor George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), Fauna’s grandfather, who many believe is the real serial killer behind the infamous case of The Black Dahlia.
A Noir set in mid-1960s Los Angeles with connections to the Black Dahlia case (which has been immortalized in a book by James Ellroy and a film by Brian De Palma) are all things which are one hundred per cent up my street. The production design (including the cars and the use of LA’s stunning Art Deco architecture) and the costumes are all beautiful and this series is a joy to look at, at least. The cinematography is also phenomenal – with unusual tracking shots and meticulous use of lighting and colour. Unfortunately, the writing – particularly the way it is structured over the six episodes – does not match up to the visuals. The main problem is that what could have easily been a two hour film is instead stretched across six hours, meaning that some sections really drag and also things get really repetitive. In pretty much every episode, Singletary gets arrested and/or beaten up by cops and there is always a scene where he meets his long-suffering editor Sullivan (Leland Orser) in a bar and they clash over the investigation that Jay wants to follow and the story he wants to tell.
Fauna’s Hodel’s circumstances are interesting – she believes herself to be of dual-heritage, with a black mother and a white father. Her single mother Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks) is raising her, but Fauna (or Pat, as she is known at the time) has light skin and blue eyes. Fauna has black friends, cousins and boyfriend but obviously is the subject to much scrutiny from both the black and white communities around her. One day she discovers a birth certificate telling her that her real mother was a white girl named Tamar Hodel and that she had a black (unknown) father. Jimmy Lee confesses that a white women paid her – in a casino bathroom – to adopt her granddaughter, because Tamar was just 15 when Fauna was born. This is what sparks the chain of events – Fauna travels to LA to find her grandfather George, but he proves elusive. She does manage to find George’s ex-wife Corinna Hodel (played by Gladiator and Wonder Woman‘s Connie Nielsen) and tries to get information out of her. However, no one is trust-worthy and no one appears to be telling the truth.
Despite the flawed writing, Pine gives an incredible performance as Singletary. He is haunted by visions of his time in the Korean War and is now drug-addicted and committed to ‘bending’ the law in pursuit of a story. Pine is underrated as an actor, with his Prince Charming looks and because he is lumped in with the white Hollywood Chrises. However, Hell or High Water (which he should have been Oscar nominated for) was a revelation in terms of demonstrating what he is capable of. One benefit of this being a series is that he gets to show range and makes some unexpected choices in his performance. It’s a shame that the events start to get so exaggerated and over-dramatic in the last few episodes, because Pine’s performance is better than this series.
The real-life story of Fauna Hodel is fascinating enough without the extrapolations made by the writers and creators of this series. George Hodel’s real-life son Steve (who doesn’t feature here) had some persuasive evidence that led him to believe his own father was the killer of The Black Dahlia and probably several other women. However, that is dispensed with in favour of cod psychology – George is portrayed as wanting to be a pianist as a child, but was deemed too unemotional (by his piano teacher Rachmaninoff?!) so was made to study medicine and become a doctor instead. There is a ridiculously overblown scene where Singletary is surrounded by George’s art collection and suddenly realises that most of the works depict women being dissected in some way. It is frustrating that this series delves into melodrama and theatrics when it was not necessary to do this. It is also massively sensationalising real-life events and real people’s deaths in a morally dubious way.
It is frustrating that something that could have been so good is so flawed. Better writing and editing, with a greater degree of control and tightening of both structure and tone would have vastly improved this series. The cinematography, production design and most of the performances are excellent. It certainly looks fabulous, but is ultimately quite a trudge to sit through. A shame.