Broadly speaking, Cold copy is extremely topical. “Journalism is not a calling,” says Tracee Ellis Ross in the opening sequence, as the powerful television interviewer Diane Heger. “It’s a personality. It has to be.” She’s not necessarily wrong. Look at some recent examples, such as Tucker Carlson’s leaked text messages belittling his supposed hero Donald Trump, and it’s easy to see how Roxine’s first feature film Helberg could strike a chord. Her screenplay is fascinating in the themes it lays out at the beginning. The film has lively performances from Ross, Bel Powley as Diane’s student, Mia Scott, and Jacob Tremblay as the subject and eventual victim of Mia’s sloppy journalism But Cold copy is also irritating in his lack of focus and in his missed opportunities.
Mia, a graduate student who takes Diane’s class at an unnamed university, is the focus of the film, and at first she is a study in naiveté. We see who Diane is long before Mia does. She is sarcastic and abrasive to her students, hard on them, possibly because they have to be tough to survive professionally. In a fierce performance, Ross doesn’t soften the edges of the character.
It comes down to
Fascinating subject, fragmentary results.
Powley exudes great intensity, while Mia makes some childish moves. She yells at Diane when she thinks she won’t be accepted into her class (unlikely, that works), and confronts her when her roommate, Kim (Nesta Cooper), gets an internship on Diane’s show, angrily asking, “Why?” she? However, for all her naivety, Mia is also ruthless and reveals Kim’s confidential source to undermine her. It’s hard to know if she was always ready to compromise on ethics or learned by watching Diane, whose approach is to make subjects squirm to get reactions on screen, even as she deals in incendiary rumours. As the story teeters between a possible plot about loss of innocence and one about dark tendencies surfacing, Mia seems like a confused, vaguely written character. Powley can’t overcome that.
As Igor Nowak, an adolescent who agrees to be the subject of Mia’s class assignment, Tremblay shows what a real talent he is. His role is secondary to that of the two stars, but his character is the most nuanced, his performance beautifully enigmatic. At times, Igor seems smarter than Mia in the field of journalism, skeptical of her intentions. His mother was a famous children’s author, whose death years earlier brought unwelcome media attention to the family. But he’s also vulnerable enough to eventually trust her.
Her trust is a big mistake that we see coming, and while Mia concocts a story about the secret of Igor’s mother’s death, the movie starts to go off the rails. Desperate for a story, Mia secretly uses Igor’s house keys, moves objects to fake an explosive image, and photographs a private letter to use in her piece. Fiction doesn’t have to get journalism right, but Cold copy crosses the line between unrealistic and absurd. Don’t mind the unethical invasion of privacy. When Mia barges into the house, be sure to ask, “Has she never seen an episode of .” Law & authority?”
Diane’s actions also become ridiculous. She invites Mia for a drink to push her to portray Igor as a troubled youth in her report. “If you pretend Igor’s okay, he looks okay,” says Diane. And if he’s okay, “where’s the story?” The disregard for the truth is meant to be the point, but a smaller issue here is very distracting. Would her student have a drink? Has she never had to take an anti-harassment course in HR like everyone who works at an American institution? That drink is presented as an event no one would blink for, not an offense on Diane’s part, and it’s one of many little missteps that add up to an increasingly incredible story.
Visually, the film is as straightforward and unobtrusive as a regular news report. But at its best, it has some stimulating moments that reveal just how much it could have said about the media and suggest Helberg’s genuine promise as a director. A sharply shot and edited flashback montage shows Igor, Mia and Kim dancing in Mia’s apartment, deftly informing us of an innocent night with brutal consequences. Mia’s report is a perfect clone of a tasteless, exploitative news report masquerading as something more serious and high-profile. And Helberg constructs a well-played, killer ending. Ultimately, though, the film isn’t so much about the ostensible themes of journalism and truth it opens with as it is about a whimsical drama about two compromised people out of control, anomalies who deserve each other.