Don't expect America's Next Top Model–style thrills from The September Issue; there are plenty of skeletal models trying their damnedest to walk like they're not trying their damnedest to walk, but they're just ambulatory clothes hangers. The documentary doesn't ignore the weird self-importance of the fashion industry ("There's a famine of beauty!" someone exclaims as though the world is about to end, and later someone else confides with a straight face, "Jacket is the new coat"), but most of the drama comes about during the creation of the largest issue of Vogue magazine in history, which is to say that most of the drama is caused by Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour.

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If fashion is a religion, as one Vogue staffer suggests, then "Anna is pope." And tiny, goblinlike Wintour makes a magnificent subject for a documentary. Beneath her immense helmet of hair and gogglelike glasses, she watches everyone cower while she quietly feasts on their weaknesses. Meryl Streep's caricature of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada proves to be a lighthearted gloss; Wintour destroys whole photo layouts and reduces her staff to tears with a wave of her hand for little more than a cheap thrill.

Unless you really care about unimportant details like how the photographer deals with cover subject Sienna Miller's unphotogenic hair, the real story of The September Issue is Wintour's story. Only briefly—especially one shot of Wintour riding in the backseat of her town car in a miniskirt, her knees looking knobby and fragile—do we understand that we are watching a ridiculous old woman in gaudy clothes who has made a career out of telling ridiculously skinny young women which gaudy clothes to wear. The rest of the time she is as compelling a figure as the greatest film actress. Against Wintour's incredible charisma, the framework of the movie—the documentary about the assembly of the issue—seems as pointless and inconsequential as, well, a two-year-old issue of Vogue.

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