I Am the Night: Chris Pine charms in dark mystery based on true events

Review: Set in 1965, this miniseries directed by Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins captivates with its rich imagery.

India Eisley and Jefferson Mays in the first episode of I Am the Night. 
Clay Enos/TNT

Among the A-listers named Chris who lead big-budget movies, I have a clear favorite. I might have been partial to Evans' bearded Captain America and I'll admit to the many positive qualities possessed by Pratt or Hemsworth. But Pine will always be my top Chris.

Let me add that I loved Wonder Woman and was pretty much ready to like anything director Patty Jenkins helmed after that. Plus, I'm a mystery junkie with more than a soft spot for Los Angeles.

So yes. I went into I Am the Night with plenty of reasons to like it. But as it turns out, it would have captivated me regardless. I Am the Night airs on TNT starting Monday and premieres in Australia Tuesday on Stan

The new six-episode TNT miniseries is written and created by Sam Sheridan and executive-produced by Jenkins and Pine. Pine stars and Jenkins directs the first two episodes of this story based on real events. It's set in a glitzy, neon-filled 1965 Los Angeles that will remind you of the city you fell in love with in films like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential

I Am the Night

Leland Orser and Chris Pine in I Am the Night.

Clay Enos/TNT

Pine plays Jay Singletary, an ex-Marine and Korean War veteran who was once a promising reporter and now has to try to make ends meet (and support his coke addiction) as a sort of paparazzi figure. Though he has a soft heart, necessity sometimes calls for him to ignore the law -- and his targets' privacy. His assigning editor likes to meet him at the historic downtown bar King Eddy Saloon and send him on errands like getting shots of a slain girl at the morgue and finding out her story.

We also have Fauna (India Eisley), a determined, candid teenager who lives outside of Reno, Nevada, and has been brought up by her single mother, Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks). Fauna looks white. Her mother is African American. At Fauna's school's cafeteria, there are separate tables for blacks and whites. The police stop her and her boyfriend just because he's black. They treat her differently when she tells them she's not actually white.

Fauna and Jay are the two central figures in a show that uses their stories to talk about racism and the price of war. We see Fauna grapple with the complexity of identity and what it means to be black or white based looks and family, but also genes. Jay is a wounded soldier haunted by nightmares. "They never train you on how to come back home," he says, recalling his training to fight in Korea.

I Am the Night

Connie Nielsen in I Am the Night.

Clay Enos/TNT

Then there's the mystery that brings Fauna to Los Angeles looking for her family and will eventually lead her to meet Jay. Delving into it too much would spoil it, but let's just say the real Fauna Hodel was a co-producer of this show, which is inspired by her life. You might not have heard about her before. But her relative, the gynecologist George Hodel, has his own Wikipedia entry. And by the end of the first or the second episodes of I Am the Night you won't be able to stop yourself from googling "Black Dahlia."

One of the great pleasures of watching this show is its portrayal of Los Angeles. You'll get to see the spooky outside and lavish inside of the Sowden House designed by Lloyd Wright in a style reminiscent of his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the actual place George Hodel called home for a few years.

The Huntington, an art institution and library, gets repurposed as an open-air restaurant and gallery for the Hodel art collection. (You might reconsider your taste for surrealist art after watching this show). And other Los Angeles classics like Chili John's or the always-lit City Hall make a cameo. The city is mainly photographed at night, and there are many bird's-eye views of flickering white and red lights from the cars that crowded its streets and highways even in the '60s. The view is reminiscent of David Lynch's moody Mulholland Drive.

I Am the Night does have a lot going on at once: a murder mystery, an identity search, lessons about ethical journalism, a depiction of how crippling PTSD can be and the absurdity of racism. A bit more focus probably would have benefited the show. But I didn't mind it being so thematically crowded because I was captivated by everything on the screen -- from the period costumes to the art and architecture, music and real locations. 

The mystery at the heart of the show didn't grab my attention as much as, say, those in Big Little Lies or Broadchurch. But that didn't necessarily bother me. This is a story based on true events and I could google what happened at any point. The big reveal didn't need to be who the murderer is. And Pine's precise yet almost effortless performance more than makes up for any flaws the script may have.

Fortunately, there are also smart and almost funny moments amid all the darkness, mainly characterized by conversations about art, surrealism and what it means to be too literal between Fauna and George Hodel's ex-wife, Corinna Huntington. She's portrayed by Connie Nielsen, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta in Wonder Woman and another link between this show and the DC blockbuster.

And yes, even though he's puffy-faced and literally beaten up for most of the show, Pine gets to turn his Hollywood charisma on. Like when he dons a pair of heart-shaped red-rimmed sunglasses and admits to Fauna he's exactly like an Arnold Palmer: kind of bitter, kind of sweet.

Bottom line: Check out I Am the Night. Even if Pine isn't your favorite Chris. Even if you weren't the least bit outraged when Jenkins and her Wonder Woman were snubbed in last year's Oscars nominations. Even if you don't like LA.

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