Ambition intrigues us. Since ancient Greek and Roman times we have watched eagerly as men have been ensnared—and later ruined—by it. People are now perhaps closer to ambition than ever before in the age of capitalism’s do-or-die pact with humanity, but that also means we’re arguably more intimately familiar with the subsequent downfall.
In Roxane Helberg’s directorial debut “Cold Copy,” we’re introduced to that undoing through the lens of hard-hitting journalism, a field where ambition is practically mounted on every desk name-plate. The film’s take on the tensions that lie in launching a career in journalism and doing whatever you can to keep it is a worthy one, if only off the back of the film’s strong leads, Bel Powley and Tracee Ellis Ross.
“Cold Copy” follows Powley’s Mia, a journalism student who will do whatever it takes to curry the favor of her high-profile and cutthroat professor, Diane (Ross), a beloved prime-time reporter with a sterling reputation. In an effort to garner the top spot in Diane’s class, Mia finds herself throwing caution, and her integrity, to the wind to find—and keep—the story that could launch her career.
This film would be run of the mill if it weren’t for its cast, who put their souls into each line and fill Helberg’s movie with the substance needed to work to some degree. Powley is a driven and ruthless lead as Mia and captures the heart of what no rest for the wicked truly means. It’s interesting to watch her become Sisyphus, consistently pushing the stone up the hill and watching it crash down again before her ambitions begin to course correct and take her to dark places. She pairs nicely with Ross, who is on fire as a selfish and calculated journalist on a power trip.
Ross’ Diane knows just how valuable she is to the world and doesn’t mind showing it. The “Black-ish” alum is great playing characters like these, women who are strong enough to withstand nearly anything thrown in their path and, further still, laugh maniacally through the pain. She’s menacing, but one can absolutely see why Mia is so drawn to her outside of her enterprising schemes.
Powley’s character takes an interest in a young teen named Igor, played by Jacob Tremblay with a maturity beyond his years. He complements Powley’s soft side and their chemistry brings out a lot of smart, assured acting in the young performer, who continues to get better and better.
The story surrounding Tremblay’s character and his family life really isn’t very compelling at all, though and it ends up reading like a story an editor would assign when they haven’t done any of the digging on what their readers actually want; they just hear a celebrity name and think yes. Because of this, it makes it hard to care about Mia’s fight to keep the story alive. If it’s not a good story, you have to hit the drawing board again, kid.
This also, at a point, makes it hard to take Diane’s impulse to steal the story seriously because it just doesn’t seem visceral enough for her to feel the jealousy overflowing to the point of taking action. It’s hard to buy this whole scenario because of the misstep with the foundation, the character and his story itself.
Helberg feels more assured as a director than a writer, and despite the dips in her story her directorial eye remains sharp. She has the tone of the taunt anxiety that runs within an investigative journalist’s blood and it flows seamlessly into her quick cuts and elongated shots aimed at her subjects. It all personifies something fragile yet determined not to break. Powley’s performance works in tandem with Helberg’s directorial hand to craft a cat and mouse game between the desperate Mia and the ferocious Diane, but unfortunately her script doesn’t meet the moment she sets up behind the camera.
That said, the film is sharp and pleasing to watch because of the way cinematographer Matteo Cocco interprets the anxiety Helberg builds. He delights in bringing focus to the darkest points on screen in a way that reinforces the tone, while editor Arndt-Wulf Peemöller’s use of a dark color palette to eclipse the entire film adds a touch of intimidation to the picture, which, being in Mia’s point of view, makes perfect tonal sense. These visual aids strengthen the film’s impact in light of a flawed script that lacks the structure for the audience to build an investment off of.
“Cold Copy” is a tense journalism drama that ultimately can’t be saved by a group of strong leads who are running lengths with the material they’ve been given. Helberg’s directorial eye proves to be something to watch, but the story she tells falls flat in the wake of uninspired character motivations that ultimately don’t make much sense in light of the stakes at hand. In service of the idea of “getting the story,” this film nearly makes the grade—like its lead character, many times—but never quite makes it to primetime, and, despite some great performances, it isn’t hard to see why.