There are very few people visually charismatic enough to sustain my attention for 90 minutes without boredom. Anna Wintour is easily one of them. I watched her cross the Condé Nast cafeteria one afternoon years ago and was, along with everyone else in the room, riveted.
"The September Issue", RJ Cutler's documentary exposé of Vogue magazine, organises itself around the production of 2007's titular issue, and the nail-biting countdown to the issue's close. In a film populated by figures such as Wintour and Grace Coddington, a legendary Vogue stylist, this is plot enough.
The famed editor-in-chief opens the film with a conviction: "Just because you'd like to put on a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress or a pair of J. Brand jeans instead of something basic from Kmart doesn't make you a dumb person," she says. Then we get an array of perspectives on Wintour from those who know her, all of whom paint the same picture. "Vogue is Anna's magazine," says Candy Pratts-Price, executive fashion director of Style.com. When a journalist proposed to André Leon Talley that "Anna is the most powerful woman in the United States," the editor-at-large answers, "Oui. Absolutely." Employees are apt to air suicidal thoughts on camera after meeting with Wintour. Even Coddington––who started at Vogue the same day as Wintour and is arguably her superior in talent––advises an underling that "You gotta be tough."
Wintour cuts a fascinating figure. It is easy to be distracted by the pin-straight bob, tennis-muscled arms and impeccable Chanel suits, which aren't stylistic whims so much as careful expressions of power. She wields this power in other ways, too: mostly through meaningful silences and impenetrable decisiveness. While editors may waver and debate their options, Wintour never projects ambiguity.
Before seeing the film, I found myself wondering (with a sinking feeling) whether Wintour would be considered an exceptional leader if she were a man. Does the world's fascination with her boil down to awe with what she has accomplished as woman? Yet this ugly notion is dispelled within minutes of "The September Issue", which reveals a woman at once steely and beguiling, and utterly unwilling to reveal her secrets.
"The September Issue" is now playing in New York and will soon open in other select cities.