Review by Sean Boelman
A documentary about a journalist might not seem like a natural fit for the directorial debut of an actress whose best known work is a fantasy show that started almost three decades ago, but Never Look Away — from Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) — defies those expectations. With a level of nuance one doesn’t expect from any biography, much less one made by a first-timer, this is an early surprise from this year’s Sundance.
Never Look Away tells the story of New Zealander journalist Margaret Moth, who became a notable camerawoman in war zones for CNN before facing a fateful injury and persevering through it. Moth is the type of subject whose story just screams “unsung hero,” and Lawless really leans into this, creating a compelling portrait of the camerawoman as an absolute badass.
One of the more interesting things about Lawless’s approach is the film’s tone. While many might be used to documentaries set against the backdrop of war being bleak and heavy, Lawless has created something often energetic and vibrant. In the movie, one interviewee talks about the rush that being in the moment creates, and the difficulty of conveying this without glorifying war. This is something that Lawless pulls off extremely well with Never Look Away.
Yet for all of the violence Moth captured and the debauchery shown from her personal life, this documentary never loses sight of the intimacy. Yes, the film’s subject lived larger-than-life, but there is still a deep poignancy to her story and an eerie timeliness considering the threats war correspondents face in today’s international conflicts.
Of course, the movie uses many of the typical methods of the documentary medium of telling its story, like talking head interviews with Moth’s contemporaries and archive interviews of Moth from when she was still alive. That being said, there’s such a kineticism to how Lawless constructs the narrative that it is consistently engaging.
There are also some really ambitious techniques employed in the film, like the use of dioramas to illustrate some of the more perilous situations that Moth found herself in. Combined with the news footage shot by Moth and her peers, the movie creates an interesting perspective on its subject’s life and career that makes it feel different from many other biographical documentaries.
When the film gets more serious, talking about Moth’s injury, it understandably loses some of its steam. However, this is also where Never Look Away begins to dive into the deeper moral complexities of the story, and with a runtime of around 85 minutes, it manages to bring a lot of nuance to these themes in a short time.
The best way to describe Lucy Lawless’s directorial debut, Never Look Away, is “deceptively simple.” On its surface, it seems like it’s just going to be another biography of someone you might not have heard of before; but eventually, the film reveals that it has much more to explore than it let on, allowing it to stand out amongst its peers.
Never Look Away is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.