Leaving Neverland

2019 | Documentary | directed by Dan Reed | 4 hrs |

If there was ever a movie that seemed to not just personify but be manifested into existence out of the media and critical climate in 2018/2019, it is Dan Reed’s 4 hour Michael Jackson take-down Leaving Neverland which chronicles the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck as they recount their life, and alleged decades of molestation, at the hands of the King of Pop. No, it’s not the #MeToo era reckoning it thinks it is where media figures who do terrible things force us to re-evaluate their work. It’s the opposite, a piece of work that can only exist in a climate where allegations are as good as evidence, feelings weigh more than facts and critics race each other to their computers to declare that they believe anyone who says anything. That’s exactly what Brian Tallerico does in a thinly veiled RogerEbert.com review that declares the film an important balancing of the scales (to what, 30 years of everyone thinking Jackson was a pedophile?) and lectures everyone about the gestating effects of child abuse trauma. What he doesn’t do, what very few people have done, is look at Leaving Neverland as a movie – and as a movie, it is pretty awful.

In fact, what Reed has put together here is a meandering, amaturish example of how not to make a argument-based documentary. He tries to create a sense of importance by dragging out the running time to an epic length and actually ends up losing both steam and credibility the longer it goes. As something of an agnostic on Michael Jackson who can easily lean toward the mainstream opinion (that Jackson was a pedophile) I actually found myself believing Robson and Safechuck less the more they spun their anecdotes. The movie is so hyper-focused on them and so claustrophobic to every other aspect of the Jackson case that the movie actually starts to feel like it is hiding something from us. It leaves out large swaths of public facts such as the police raid on Neverland ranch, the press conferences during his trial, and minimizing the statements of Macauley Culkin, other kids and Jackson’s one-time wife Lisa Marie Presley as eye-witnesses from his 2-story bedroom.  The movie has a repulsive counte-effect. If Reed’s goal was to ironically replicate the feeling of being cut off from the world and brainwashed then Mission: Accomplished.

But the bigger issue is that documentaries are still movies, they still need to have some cinematic fingerprint to validate their existence. Leaving Neverland is not so much a movie as it is a very long Dateline interview. We watch Robson, Safechuck, their parents and siblings look into the camera or someone just off screen and talk about their globetrotting celebrity encounters, then incredibly graphic details of the alleged molestation. This is intercut with either still photographs or endless repetitive drone footage that drags across the Los Angeles skyline pulling us out of the period narrative every time it inadvertently catches a glimpse of a Mama Mia: Here We Go Again billboard revealing that Reed ran out and caught this footage last year.

The answer to a bad movie is a good movie. Imagine if Alex Gibney or Erroll Morris put this movie together. It would be sliced in half for maximum efficiency, it would be full of news footage and timelines and graphs. It would have shown all sides but made it’s case the strongest. Even if all of this is Robson and Safechuck lying and hustling for a book deal, Gibney, Morris, or hell, even Michael Moore, would have built a strong case worth contending with. Leaving Neverland instead offers nothing but anecdotes. No facts, no new evidence and nothing that will turn anyone’s opinion on Michael Jackson’s guilt or innocence one way or the other from what has already been put out into the world in the last 30 years. Michael Jackson may very well have been a monster, but Leaving Neverland is far from the book-closing exclamation point on the Jackson case that many critics are pretending it is.

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