Anna Wintour, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue for the past 20 years, sits at the center of this mostly engaging documentary, which details a production cycle of the magazine’s annual, trend-setting, behemoth autumnal issue, this one featuring Sienna Miller as its cover gal. The inspiration for Meryl Streep’s imperious character in The Devil Wears Prada, Wintour is the most powerful and polarizing figure in fashion; her whims can make or break a new designer or an emergent trend.
So does director R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue melt the facade of its icy subject? Yes and no. There’s a moment of human frailty in an admission that her siblings are “amused” by what she does, and the film opens with a knowing rebuttal of those that look down on fashion, but there’s little sense of stark definition of the guiding principles that inform Wintour’s dictatorial snap-judgments. This means that for those for whom fashion is a tertiary consideration at best, Wintour remains distant and unknowable — just another snooty, smart-talking boss above any rational dissection or accountability.
The superb 1993 political documentary that Cutler produced, The War Room, made the frenetic particulars of a campaign for the presidency seem invigorating and relatable on a personal level, and The September Issue similarly locates a humanistic pulse. While nicely complemented with interviews, Cutler’s fly-on-the-wall observational tack smartly trusts viewers to track small non-verbal details, and he’s rewarded with the sort of carping and back-biting that almost any employee will recognize in their own corporate culture.
The film’s main drama is wrapped up in the two-decade relationship between “frenemies” Wintour (above center) and Grace Coddington, Vogue‘s creative director. It’s a case of the pretty and pedigreed versus a life tragically altered: Coddington’s often seemingly low-held ground in various arguments isn’t made easier by her frazzled, slightly frumpy demeanor, or the fact that she’s scarred by an auto accident that’s left her vaguely resembling a sister of Eric Stoltz’s character from Mask. It’s this contrast that helps the film succeed as a portrait of teeth-grinding workplace friction, though. An audience feels Coddington’s angst, even if they don’t know Manolo Blahniks from Sketchers. (Roadside Attractions, 88 minutes, unrated)