Steven Spielberg’s sharp new work, The Post, is the film the continent needs right now, an intelligent yet understated primal scream for truth; for the importance of truth in the news, for the news media’s duty and responsibility to report the truth, no matter how difficult it might be. Not since All the President’s Men (1976) has a film about journalism been so vital, so necessary, and so utterly brilliant. It is one of those films that seems to speak to us about what is happening in the world, and the directing and writing possessed of an urgency that demands we listen. The Post is electrifying, intelligent, thrilling, unsettling, superbly acted, directed, written and created, and altogether remarkable.
Since ascending to the office of president, Donald Trump has managed to make a mockery of the office (and, frankly, himself) around the globe. Knowing the media neither liked him or trusted him, he first attacked them, claiming they reported fake news. This is, of course absurd, as the news we hear is researched, confirmed, then researched again before it goes on the air or to print. What Trump worries about is that the deeper they dig, the more they could get on him, and I suspect that is a very deep well. We know he lies, we know he makes things up and declares them to be the truth, just because he says so. In the days since he took office, the news network CNN has become Trump TV, each day filled with “what did he do now?” The press should follow Trump, ignore the bans he places and continue digging; he must be exposed, he must be monitored, whatever secrets he holds close must be known.
Steven Spielberg’s film does not deal with Trump, but the issues within the film, set in the 70s, are as timely, as urgent as ever, ringing of a truth we need in the press. The gifted director has created an allegory for the ages, one that he felt was necessary to make “right now,” and he was as right.
In the 70s, the Pentagon Papers fell into the hands of both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Faced with the difficult decision of publishing what amounted to national security, the Times lost its battle in court; president Nixon flexing his muscles and power. The infamous Pentagon Papers detailed how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson lied to the American public about the war in Viet Nam, and the subsequent escalation of that conflict. Clearly the Nixon White House did not want those facts published, fearing repercussions with an election year looming.
The Post had come under new ownership, with Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) taking command after the death of her husband. Fiercely interested in making the paper the best it could be, she entrusted it and editorial decisions to Ben Bradley (Tom Hanks). Graham was faced with the decision of challenging the White House and printing the papers, which explore the escalation of the war in Viet Nam despite the government knowing the war was futile and lost.
The Post plunges us back into the 70s, when copy was written on typewriters, when the newsroom bustled with activity and noise. We watch fascinated as writers create without the Internet, making phone calls, digging into a story to finds its truth. Mrs. Graham has a vital decision to make. Should the American people, who would re-elect Nixon in a stunning landslide, know about his decisions regarding the most unpopular in the history of the United States? The answer is yes, but with power of the White House breathing down their necks, threatening ruin …? History shows that she made the right decision, and a year later two reporters began digging into a burglary at the Watergate Hotel that would reach into the Oval Office and bring president Nixon down. Without the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers, would the Post have had the greater courage to pursue the Watergate story into the White House? Into the Oval Office?
Young women need to know the impact in recent American history of women, of their courage, their intellect, their vision, their unspoken war in proving themselves in a man’s world. There is no question men need to be reminded as well.
What is there left to say about Meryl Streep? Twenty Academy Award nominations, three wins, countless Critics awards, Emmys, Globes, New York Film Critics Awards – she is the most lauded actress in modern cinema. Easily the greatest actress in film history, she must now be considered the greatest actor…period. As Katherine Graham, she is astonishing, coming into a man’s world late in life but making no bones about the fact she was to be dealt with seriously. Initially she is openly mocked by the men who work for her and her own board of directors. Digging in, her intellect spinning, she demonstrated exactly how formidable she truly was. Refusing to back away from the White House, she used the constitution for her right to publish those papers, and she was right to do so. A nomination for Best Actress is assured, and if the film catches fire, as I suspect it will, she might just win.
As Ben Bradley, Tom Hanks has a distinct disadvantage in that Jason Robards played the part in All the President’s Men and won an Oscar, along with every other critic’s award for his powerful performance. This is a reminder of how great Hanks is. He makes the part his own and is equally superb. Knowing the story they are sitting on could alter the history of the country, but aware of the government’s ferocious protests, he must walk a careful line, he must be sure, and present it to Graham cautiously, truthfully. Smelling a huge story, his newsman sense wants to see it a go, but his respect for Graham is front and centre, he does not want her bullied or humiliated. Hanks has the courage to portray Bradley with a mean streak, something he was known to have. He proved to be ruthless a year later when the Watergate story finally broke.
There are marvellous supporting performances from the great Sarah Paulson and Bob Odenkirk, both who could leap into the Oscar race. Paulson in particular continues to evolves into the greatest character actress of her generation.
Spielberg continues to amaze with his sublime artistry, evolving it seems with each new picture. I was not sure he would ever make a more political film than his superb Lincoln (2012) yet he achieves that with this superb work. He had long wanted to work with Streep, beyond the voice work she did in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Hanks too had waited for a chance, thinking time had passed him by. The three of them create movie magic here, a fiercely, intelligent film that explores a pivotal moment in American history yet reaches forward to the present to explore the dangers of banning the press or having anything short of a free press. It is without question the single most important film made this year, and along with Schindler’s List (1993) the most important of Spielberg’s career. Like Munich (2005) and the sublime Lincoln, the film was made with great care and intelligence, yet has its sights firmly on target.
The cinematography of Janus Kaminski is crisp and clean, documentary-like but manages to give the feel of 70s cinema.
The film was shot through the summer, edited in the fall and in an incredible turnaround is in theatres a less than a year after it was cast.
It might be the very best film of the year.
For the last 30 years, there has been no greater actor on movie screens than the astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis, the only actor to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor. Day-Lewis first caught the attention of critics as the priggish snob in A Room with a View (1986), and and as a gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette (1987). His powerful performance as Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) quietly launched him as a leading man. With his stunning performance as Irish writer Christy Brown, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, he was suddenly a bonafide film star with huge exceptions. He worked only when he felt connected to a role, refused the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, he had respect the filmmaker and, truthfully, feel like working, because when he took a role, he prepared from six months to a year. After winning that first Oscar, he followed with Oscar-caliber performances in the magnificent The Last of the Mohicans (1992), a superb period piece directed by Michael Mann in which Day-Lewis gave a furiously physical performance.
Now we have what he says is his last film, Phantom Thread, which reunites he and director Paul Thomas Anderson, their previous work being There Will Be Blood (2007).
Set in 1955, the film explores the life of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, more specifically, women’s dress designer, who routinely uses women and discards them when he is through with them. Yet we wonder why he wants them in the first place; he seems to need a mother more than anything else, though his controlling sister seems to have a handle on his life. Into his life comes a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who seems to have an innate understanding of his sex drive and how they are alike in this way. Using her as his muse, as he has many before her, he seduces her by making her a dress, but then begins designing at a furious pace, enraged when interrupted. Though so well suited to each other in many ways, it is inevitable the relationship will turn toxic, yet it is fascinating to watch it break down.
Day-Lewis is flawless as Woodcock, bringing to us a man obsessed with his art, but equally obsessed with his process and the women who inspire him. As with all his work, it is a very different character he gives us, unlike any previous creation. There is something dark underneath Woodcock, and he suggests that within moments of his first scene.
Krieps is a revelation as Alma, creating a deceptively simplistic woman who sees and understands more than we realize.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems bent on never repeating himself, with the exception of theme. Once again, the gifted director/writer has made a powerful character study about deeply flawed yet gifted men, light years away from any of his previous films, though the flawed man remains a theme. Beautifully written and directed, it is a leisurely-paced film, taking its time, as the characters draw us in. Handsomely designed, it is a truly lovely film to look at, but as an entertainment, might be too much of an art film to make money. Hopefully it finds the audience it deserves.
Day-Lewis has said this will be his last film. Let’s hope not. What a tragedy if this man never acts again.
Just Getting Started
Why must Hollywood insult the elderly? Why must they reduce those over 70 to randy, sex obsessed, flatulent, hipsters rather than the people they really are? Once in a while they get it right: On Golden Pond (1981) though highly sentimental, is a lovely story about aging, while more recently Away from Her (2007) was both a breathtaking love story, as well as being a profoundly honest film about Alzheimer’s disease. Yet far too often we get films like this new movie, which in addition to robbing us of two hours of our life, squanders the talents of the gifted actors who for some reason signed on.
This film took me back to The Bucket List (2008), a dreadful film about two very different men who become friends, then travel the world. Just Getting Started is a terrible film, directed by a good filmmaker, featuring two great actors and a lovely actress, all caught up in a stupid premise that must have felt like a sinking rowboat.
Duke (Morgan Freeman) manages a retirement community where he has set himself up as a resident Lothario crossed with Hugh Hefner. He likes his life, he likes who he is within the confines of the community. The women love him, he gets pretty much anyone he wants and everyone looks up to him. When Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) moves in, for the first time Duke feels threatened. A cowboy- style playboy, he is better than Duke at just about everything, and he knows it, and enjoys it. Their competition heats up when the gorgeous Susie (Rene Russo) moves into the community, and both men lust after her.
But then, Duke’s past reaches forward into the present and he finds himself the target of hitmen trying to kill him for some things he did in the past. Lame car chases, lazy storytelling and stupid events follow, all which will have you ready to gouge your eyes out long before this nightmare ends.
Freeman and Jones are two tremendous actors – brilliant, risk-taking artists fearless to go against the grain. Jones in particular is an acting titan. Here, they play roles they have perfected, that they could phone in, and apparently they did. Is this crap the best thing landing on their desks these days? Was the desire to work together so great they thought they could something of this horrible screenplay?
Jones is almost always at least interesting. With the exception of his pathetic performance as Two Face in Batman and Robin (1997), he has been a remarkably consistent actor. What is he doing here? Not even the lovely presence of Rene Russo can prevent this from being an absolute fiasco. A long time ago, Ron Shelton was a respected filmmaker and writer. Those days are so dead and gone it is odd to think they even existed.
In the last 17 years, director-writer Alexander Payne has made some of the finest films of our time, outstanding character studies of ordinary men and women caught up in daily life. Twice he has won Academy Awards for his screenplay, twice he has directed the year’s best film.
Downsizing, his latest and most ambitious work, is the first time the director has relied on visual effects in his narrative, the first time his characters have been so connected to the world around them, the first time he is making a statement about the state of the world. Despite its obvious ambition, the film remains vintage Payne in that humanity connects with humanity.
In the very near future, a group of scientists in Norway have discovered a means of shrinking human beings down to a size of between five and six inches, depending on their actual height. They figure that shrinking people will allow more room for the fast growing population because the downsized people live in domed cities a few meters in size. Their personal savings become ten times what they were, making most of them millionaires able to live in mansions and splendor. The only problem with downsizing is the procedure is irreversible – once shrunk, you are forever tiny.
Paul (Matt Damon) likes the idea so he and his wife decide to do it. The entire procedure is an assembly line of work, being shorn of all body hair, stripped naked, then downsized, removed from the table with a spatula-like tool, then left to wake. Paul awakens to a nasty surprise in that his wife backed out at the last minute and did not go through with it, leaving him alone. The divorce forces him out of his mansion, into an apartment where he meets a Euro swinger, portrayed with brash smiling charm by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. After a party given by his new friend, he meets Loc (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese refugee who lost her lower leg before being downsized. She opens his eyes to the other side of the tracks of the domed paradise, where a ghetto exists, where people are sick and dying, where Loc dedicates her life to helping others. Paul is stunned by this gentle, soulful woman who speaks exactly what is on her mind and her shows her compassion for others less fortunate. He simply cannot believe a person could so deeply care for a stranger.
A beautiful, unexpected love story takes place in the film between Paul and Loc. Together they embark on a journey for the greater good of mankind, ever evolving as people throughout this daring film. Downsizing becomes as much about the environment as it is a love story between two people, one fiercely connected to the earth, the other learning.
As good as Matt Damon is, the film belongs to Hong Chau, who begins the film as a stereotypical character. But Paul begins to realize she has great depth and the ability to love deeply. The actress is mesmerizing, a joy to watch grow before our eyes until she is all we care about.
Christopher Waltz is very funny as the noisy, bohemian neighbour to Paul, but it is again a variation on the major parts he has played before.
The scene in which the characters are downsized is beautifully directed, kind of an assembly line procedure out of a fairy tale for adults. In pristine white rooms, all his body hair is removed, he is placed naked on a table and shrunk. When he wakes, like any guy, the first thing he checks is his junk, making sure it is in proportion to the rest of him. Angry that his wife bailed on the procedure, he nonetheless makes a good life for himself, even after discovering the ghetto.
Damon eases into this role as Jimmy Stewart used to ease into his best performances, growing, always discovering more about himself and asking what he is going to do about it. His scenes with Chau are lovely, quietly taking it as she berates him.
There are those who will find the film a disappointment, which I understand but disagree with. Downsizing is bold, brilliant and filled with everything that makes mankind good. It is a great film.