Sunday, July 10, 2022

REVIEW: 'Black Bird' - Jimmy Keene Is Offered a Chance at Freedom By Embarking on a Dangerous Mission in 'Pilot'

AppleTV+'s Black Bird - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Jimmy Keene is living in the fast lane - until he gets a 10-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he's approached about a high-stakes deal for freedom.

"Pilot" was written by Dennis Lehane and directed by Michaël Roskam

The life of James Keene's childhood friend is only worth three kilos of cocaine. Conversely, his freedom to spend time with his dying father is worth any physical danger that may come his way. Those two situations reveal the extent of his character at the start and end of this premiere. Jimmy is an incredibly arrogant individual. He walks through life as if it is tailor made for him. As such, it's perfectly fitting for him to receive a ten year prison sentence for distributing drugs and possessing assault weapons (back in the late 1990s when such weapons were banned). The premise isn't meant to focus on this criminal mastermind breaking bad to give his father the care he needs. Instead, it's all about the offer the FBI and local DA make him. They want to transfer him to a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane in order to befriend a serial killer. They need someone on the inside to pass along information about where the bodies of Larry Hall's victims are. That's seen as the only way for the justice system to make their case. They worry Larry's conviction is about to be overturned on appeal. They can prove he's guilty of at least two murders. He's suspected of over a dozen more. The police have only recovered one body. That investigation plays out in flashbacks to three years prior. Those sequences serve as an introduction to Larry. He's written off as harmless in his local community. People want to make excuses for him. The sexism is rampant in every aspect of society. The police view questioning Larry as an epic waste of time. And yet, so many red flags are apparent. He fetishizes the police and the Civil War. He has made his image into the likeness of the soldier he plays in reenactments. He appreciates when Brian comes into the interrogation using the right terminology. All of this plays as Brian being the detective capable of proving Larry's guilt when so many overlook him. And yet, that's not the purpose of the story. It all ultimately pivots around Jimmy and the connection he is ordered to build with Larry. Of course, the two of them don't interact at all in this premiere. That's mostly a letdown. The show is leisurely revealing its narrative. It's not exactly done with a lot of flair or purpose. It mostly comes across as a subpar Mindhunter ripoff. That's certainly an aspirational goal. One that can attract the caliber of the cast assembled. However, the narrative is built around the rehabilitative element prison is suppose to have on those sentenced within the system. Jimmy must embark on a mission he would normally never agree to do. He's fighting against time.

And then, Jimmy is crushed with a sense of hopelessness. He's not in charge of determining whether to take on this undercover work. It's all positioned as if he is the only possible person who could go in and retrieve this information. Agent McCauley shares that this offer has been made to multiple people. They don't care who ultimately carries it out. They just need to produce the results as quickly as possible. As such, they will agree to whatever deal will make that a reality. Jimmy feels the pressure because his father has had a stroke. Jimmy will miss out on precious time if he has to serve his full sentence. He already feels betrayed by the District Attorney who lied about the terms of his sentence. That too was an abuse of the system that runs rampant. Elements of this world have evolved in the decades since. It's not really meant to shine a light on the brutality of the system. It's all done with the inherent understanding that people suffer in prison. That's not exactly true for Jimmy. He already has a thriving business selling time to his fellow inmates to look at porn magazines. That would offer comfort. It's not pleasant. It's not immediately placing him in danger. He's inherently selfish. This deal makes no sense whatsoever. Plus, it clashes with the narrative suggesting that Brian is the only person who can get Larry talking. That's how the entire situation is framed when Brian tries to get answers while the other detectives are interjecting. They have already made their determination about Larry. Brian is assessing the situation as it goes along. He picks up on the clues that will point to guilt. It apparently isn't enough. That's the only way to suggest Jimmy's importance in this story. Life is random and chaotic. People have an impact on each other without even realizing it. That parallel is drawn out in the opening narration. This is a life-changing story brought together by incredible events that seem so separate at first. But again, it's expected that the show will bring these many elements together. That doesn't need to be spelled out in such a way that demands further scrutiny. It's basically the show lingering on ideas and images in order to make its point clear. That leaves a feeling of uncertainty moving forward. Not every moment is crafted with care and precision. It's all meant to elongate the series when all of this could have easily been condensed to a feature film runtime. After one episode, the audience should feel secure in the premise and what this creative team aspires to do. No urgency is found here that validates the creative choices made.