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THE POST: The War Against Fake News Has Been Fought Before And Won

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THE POST (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2017)

After putting his stamp on just about every other cinematic genre out there, Steven Spielberg now tries his hand at newspaper drama with this timely story that’s ripped straight from the headlines, but, obviously, they’re headlines that are over four decades old. Simply, THE POST relays how the Washington Post defied President Nixon and all his men by publishing top secret files detailing the lies the government told and was still telling about the Vietnam war.

As the paranoid, dishonest tactics of the Nixon White House have many times been likened to the Trump Administration’s troubling methods, it may seem a bit too on the nose to get this big star-studded prestige picture from those liberals in Hollywood about how then is just like now, just in time for awards season.

And yes, this is a cautionary tale about how journalism is being threatened in our current era of “fake news,” but despite the predictable packaging, Spielberg has successfully structured an earnest, old fashioned, and highly entertaining showcase for his inspiring subject, and his superb cast.

And it really is a superb cast as Oscar-winners Tom Hanks, as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradley, and Meryl Streep as the Post’s publisher, Katherine Graham, head the strong ensemble that also includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk (with David Cross also on board we get a Mr. Show re-union!), Jesse Plemmons, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, and Carrie Coon.

The film begins in 1966 Vietnam, evoked by the familiar sounds of helicopter blades, and CCR blasting, as we see gritty shots of soldiers loading their guns, and applying war paint. Mulling about these men is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military advisor on a fact finding mission to monitor the war’s progress.

After we see Ellsberg witness a night ambush by the Viet Cong in the rainy jungle, he reports back to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) that things haven’t gotten any better or worse over the last year, they’ve stayed the same.

To Ellsberg’s disgust, McNamara lies to reporters telling them that “Military progress over the last 12 months has exceeded our expectations,” so Ellsberg steals a top secret 7,000 page document soon to be dubbed “The Pentagon Papers,” that strongly says otherwise about US strategy in south-east Asia, and later leaks it to the New York Times.

That brings us to 1971, where Streep’s Graham is taking the Post’s stock public just as the Times’ is publishing a portion of the Pentagon Papers, which leads to the Nixon administration suing the Times to halt further publication.

Under intense pressure, Graham frets over the legal ramifications of the Post publishing the secret files obtained from Ellsberg while Hanks’ Bradlee scrambles with his staff to distill thousands of pages into articles fit to print under strict deadlines.

THE POST can serve as a companion piece and a prequel to Alan J. Pakula’s, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, as it ends where that essential Watergate expose begins, but it stands on its own as a solid, stately tribute to the power of the free press.

Since Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg, all at the top of their game here, have already won multiple Oscars, they may cancel themselves out of the race.


So may co-screenwriter Josh Singer, who won last year for SPOTLIGHT, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who’s already won two Oscars for Spielberg films; and composer John Williams, whose won five (count ‘em – five, and three were for Spielberg movies), so I can see this movie not winning anything (it didn’t win any of the six Golden Globes it was up for), but it won’t matter because THE POST is an Oscar-caliber film regardless.

See it so you can see that what is going on now has gone on before, and since it was overcome then, it can be fought and won against again.

More later…

BRIDGE OF SPIES: Spielberg & Hanks Serve Up Splendid Cold War Spy Stuff

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)

You know we’re really getting into the season of Oscar-baiting when a prestige picture with such pedigree as this one comes along. I mean, it’s a Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks, concerning historical events, with a screenplay co-written by the Coen brothers – can you get any more Oscar baity than that?

But BRIDGE OF SPIES, the 29th movie by the most famous and successful filmmaker of our times, is a worthy, noble piece of entertainment that ranks with Spielberg’s best work, and it’s my favorite of his four collaborations with Hanks, of course, one of the most famous and successful leading men ever.

Set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, the film posits Hanks as James Donovan, a Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer who was recruited by the CIA to his initial chagrin to defend an accused Soviet spy.

The assignment makes Hanks’ Donovan very unpopular with the public – he gets nasty looks from folks on the subway looking up from their newspapers – and draws ire from his wife, played by Amy Ryan, elevating the role of the typical concerned wife-on-the-side, who asks: “Do you know how people will look at us, the family of the man trying to free a traitor?” (sure, it’s an easy, obvious role for Ryan, but if you have to have that part played – who better?).

Donovan consults with his client, Rudolf Abel (played with nonchalance by Mark Rylance) and explains that if convicted he could be facing the death penalty. “You don’t seem alarmed,” Donovan observes to which Abel says “would it help?” This line becomes a running joke of sorts.

As expected, Donavan loses the case but argues that Abel should be kept alive in case the situation arises in which the Soviets have captured an American then a trade could possibly be arranged.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a group of U.S. fighter pilots who are sent on a secret intelligence gathering mission involving the Airforce’s new fangled high altitude, camera-equipped U-2 spy planes. One of the pilots, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured by the Russians.

Representing the CIA, Donovan travels to East Berlin to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers, and another American, a Yale student named Frederic L. Pryor (Will Rogers), who was arrested and is being held without charge by the East German police.

Maneuvering through the negotiation process between East Germany and the U.S.S.R. is tricky for Donovan as has to work out the conditions of the deal with such prickly bureaucrats as Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), a German lawyer; and German Stasi agent Harald Ott (Burghart Klaußner).

Between meetings on the street of Berlin, Donovan is accosted by a group of young German toughs, who steal his overcoat. Afterwards, one of his colleagues asks “How did you lose your coat?” Hanks shrugs and replies: “You know, spy stuff.”

Spielberg and Hanks serve up splendid, you know, spy stuff here in this sturdy, grey-toned drama that beautifully builds to the tense prisoner exchange climax at Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin, where Powers’ fighter pilot friend Joe Murphy (Jesse Plemons) is brought over to confirm his identity.


This stand-out sequence is where Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński captures the film’s most stunning imagery with the glare of lights on the snowbound bridge juxtaposed with the pitch black of the night effectively surrounding these little men just doing their jobs, as one character puts it.

The film’s post script shines with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality which many may find to be cheesy – i.e. such shots as a woman on the subway looks up from her paper to give our modest hero Hanks a smile of approval in obvious contrast to that earlier aforementioned scene – but it felt earned to me.

Hanks and Spielberg are among the only ones these days who can really sell such a Capra-esque vision of an all-American family man – an honest lawyer, mind you – who works to do the right thing to make the world a better place. Donovan’s role in the trial and the trade deserves such a treatise, enhanced by the timely commentary on how the Cold War of yesteryear echoes through the War on Terror of today.

It’s also a pleasure to have Hanks handling the sharply scripted dialogue by Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote with Mark Charman, that’s so much better than what the Coen brothers gave him in one their rare misfires, 2004’s THE LADYKILLERS. Still, Hanks, as solid and dependable as his performance is, will doubtfully get any Oscar action for this (the Academy has been there done that), but I’m betting that Rylance, who quietly steals the movie as the amusingly jaded Abel, will get a nomination.


BRIDGE OF SPIES may be another case of the “Greatest Generation” saluting itself again, but it’s grand, old fashioned entertainment made by one of our most trusted storytellers, and one of our most trusted actors that does stately justice to its subject. So go ahead and label it Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth swallowing hook, line, and sinker.

More later…