Julie Taymor’s docudrama on the amazing life of feminist icon Gloria Steinem uses five actresses to play the activist at various points in her life (with Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore shouldering most of the work). Sometimes, these women appear in the same scene, and chat. Indeed, in what has to be the most obvious ever cinematic metaphor, as this two-and-a-half-hour movie unwinds, we find them all passengers on the same bus on, you know, a Journey of Life. An artsy stretch, maybe, but it works more often than not.
Though more wide than deep, this is a thoughtful portrait of a unique woman, from her rootless childhood, her sojourn in India, her working undercover as a Playboy bunny for an investigative magazine article and entering politics at the forefront of the feminist movement (Bette Midler is a hoot as Bella Abzug). Based on Steinem’s own book, “My Life on the Road,” it’s also totally unpredictable, which is refreshing in a biopic
My gripe would be that writer/director Julie Taymor, being Julie Taymor (Frida, Across the Universe, Titus, The Tempest, The Lion King), frequently inserts into the narrative stylistic vignettes. that are supposed to, and sometimes do, illustrate or advance the story. But more often they’re interruptive and walk the cusp of the “look-at-me” school of film direction. To me, Steinem’s fascinating journey has little need for showboating movie tricks. Also, it gets pretty preachy at times, and clumsily so. Inevitable I suppose, in a political and/or activist movie where there’s a lot to be said, but off-putting nonetheless.
Bottom line: Given the looming political threats to women’s rights in the U.S. and elsewhere, this movie is newly and highly relevant, and a political must-see. (147 min)