License to Operate movie poster
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License to Operate
License to Operate movie poster

License to Operate Movie Review

I didn't really know nor care what License to Operate was when I went to see it at the Seattle International Film Festival (#SIFF2015). The only thing I knew: Pete Carroll, coach of my Seattle Seahawks, was a producer and would be in the theater to do an introduction to the film.

Sold.

While I don't really remember anything that Pete said, I will remember License to Operate, a straightforward documentary about former gang members who have returned to their gang-plagued neighborhoods in South Los Angeles to eliminate violence from the streets. That's no small task, especially considering that in the 90's over a thousand people were getting killed per year.

The documentary, directed by James Lipetzky, follows several former ganger members—primarily Bloods and Crips—who have devoted their lives to working in and improving their communities by coming together and blurring gang loyalties. In addition, it also looks at the lives of a police officer, a high school girl and a 17-year-old gang member.

The inspiring tale is well assembled by Lipetzky and his crew, who have developed a doc that is generally fast paced, sometimes intense and certainly fascinating to watch. The choice of music adds a level of gravitas as well. Most importantly, the stories the documentary showcases are pretty amazing.

Unfortunately, License to Operate struggles in the home stretch. At an hour and 40 minutes, the film feels about 10 minutes too long. The stuff with Pete Carroll at the beginning seems to be inserted just to placate the man, but importantly Lipetzky begins to drift away from his core focus as time goes on. The story of high school student Jazmin Falls is relevant for a while, but Lipetzky spends too much time on her foster situation—her story becomes boring after a while. He also begins to get a little too artistic; the entire ending of the movie drags without much purpose, content with exposition instead of hard-hitting elements.

In the Q&A that occurred after the movie, one of the subjects, Aquil Basheer, admitted that 13 members of his group have been killed in the last three years—it's strange that Lipetzky never addresses this fact, or explores the fatal dangers that surround the heroes he puts on display. License to Operate is certainly intended to be an uplifting documentary to some degree, but it seems disingenuous to have not touched upon this aspect of the subjects' lives.

License to Operate is a solid documentary that showcases a very interesting, extremely successful and largely unknown community program, but a few filmmaking choices hold it back from being something greater.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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