The popularity of nonfiction filmmaking has led to a lot of mediocrity. Most recently, you can see it on the HBO miniseries The Vow, an expose of the NXIVM that lasts for hours longer than it should. I understand why filmmakers pad out stories like this: they are eager to share fascinating details, not realizing that less is more. Time, the new feature by Garrett Bradley, is the rare documentary where form and subject weave into an powerful whole. Bradley is able to cover twenty of years of family history in less than ninety minutes, and yet its careful observation give the uncanny suggestion we have known this family all our lives.
Time weaves black and white archival footage mixed with footage Bradley and his cinematographers recently shot. His storytelling masterstroke is to make the new footage, in terms of aesthetics and intimacy, look similar to the archive. That means Bradley can jump back and forth through different periods, giving it all a seamless feel. The effect is almost like the Up documentaries or Boyhood, except the shots are framed so that we focus on these people, never their surroundings.
Bradley follows the Richardson family, who are well-meaning but fell on tough times in the late 1990s. In their desperation, Sibil Fox Richardson and her husband Rob robbed a bank (she was the driver). They both served time for their crime – Sibil got out in a few years – but Time follows the excruciating period where Rob finished his sentence, and is still stuck in jail. On top of Sibil’s battle against an indifferent legal bureaucracy, Bradley focuses on her two sons as they grow from boys into confident young men.
There is a dreamy sense of the immediate present to each scene. Aside from the camerawork, another key to this effect is the evocative score by Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery. All the music is jazzy piano, except no musical idea every fully resolves. There is a loopy quality to the music, which means we have little sense of temporal momentum. If there is no end to the music, everything seems like the “now.”
This gorgeous music creates achingly beautiful associations, like when the mother talks about the men she wants her sons to become, then cuts to them graduating school and embarking on their lives. Rob’s presence is acutely felt and never seen, and that absence is felt in unlikely ways. There is a long scene where one of the boys is in a debate for student body government, and his rhetorical cadence sounds like Barack Obama. Perhaps he is desperate for a father figure to influence him.
Sibil Fox Richardson is a remarkable woman, one who used everything she had to keep her family as tight-knight as she could. One constant refrain is when she calls a judge, asking the same receptionist over and over when Rob will, after all this time, finally be released. She gets the cold shoulder, and while Sibil is effusively polite, there is coiled anger once the call ends. Time suggests there are stories like this all over the country, where a family makes a mistake and pays for it in disproportionate ways that are downright cruel.
While this family is a stand-in for others who will not get the same treatment from a great documentary filmmaker, Bradley has the sensitivity and formal daring to mix the specific with the universal. If most documentaries are like a long-form 60 Minutes segment, then Time is closer to politically charged poetry.
Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime.