“THE POST” (2017) Review

the-post

“THE POST” (2017) Review

When one thinks of Katharine GrahamBen Bradlee and The Washington Post; the Watergate scandal comes to mind. So, when I heard that filmmaker Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about the famous newspaper’s connection to the “Pentagon Papers” . . . I was very surprised. 

As many know, the Pentagon Papers had originated as a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored report that depicted the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Sometime between 1969 and 1971, former military/RAND Corporation strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg and RAND colleague Anthony Russo secretly made several copies of classified documents about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam since 1945 and submitted them in 1971 to The New York Times correspondent, Neil Sheehan. The Times eventually published the first excerpts of the classified documents on June 13, 1971. For years, I have been aware of The New York Times‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. I had no idea that The Washington Post had played a major role in its publication, as well.

There have been several productions and documentaries about the Pentagon Papers. However, most of those productions centered around Daniel Ellsberg or The New York Times‘s roles in the documents. “THE POST” marked the first time in which any production has depicted The Washington Post‘s role. Many people, including employees from The New York Times, have questioned Spielberg’s decision to make a movie about The Post‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. Some have accused Spielberg of giving credit for the documents’ initial publication to the The Washington Post. And yet, the movie made it perfectly clear that The New York Times was the first newspaper to do so. It even went out of its way to convey Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee’s frustration at The Times‘ journalistic coup.

Following The New York Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers’ first excerpts, the Nixon Administration, at the urging of Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, opposed the publication. Later, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to obtain a Federal court injunction, forcing The Times to cease publication after three articles. While The New York Times prepared a legal battle with the Attorney General’s office, Post assistant editor Ben Bagkikian tracks down Ellsberg as the source of the leak. Ellsberg provides Bagdikian with copies of the same material given to The Times, who turns them in to Bradlee. The movie’s real drama ensues when the newspaper’s owner, Katherine Graham, finds herself torn between Bradlee’s urging to publish the documents and the newspaper’s board of directors and attorneys, urging her not to.

I had at least two problems with “THE POST”. I am certain that others had more problems, but I could only think of two. I had a problem with Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. I realize that the man is a legend in the Hollywood industry. And I have been more than impressed with some of his past work – many of it for Steven Spielberg’s movies. But I did not like his photography in “THE POST”. I disliked the film’s grainy and slightly transparent photography. I do not know the reasons behind Spielberg and Kamiński’s decision to shoot the movie in this style. I do know that I found it unappealing.

My second problem with the film centered around Spielberg’s directorial style. In other words, his penchant for sentimentality nearly made the film’s last ten minutes slightly hard for me to swallow. I refer to the scene in which one of the reporters read aloud the Supreme Court’s decision to allow both The Washington Post and The New York Times, along with any other newspaper, to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. It simply was not a matter of actress Carrie Coon reading the Court’s decision out loud. Spielberg emphasized the profoundness of the moment with John Williams’ maudlin score wailing in the background. A rather teeth clenching moment for me.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much. Superficially, “THE POST” did not seem that original to me. When one has seen the likes of “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” and “SPOTLIGHT”, what is so different between them and “THE POST”. But there was a difference. For the movie’s real heart focused upon owner Katherine Graham and her conflict over whether or not to allow the next excerpts of the Pentagon Papers to be published. And what made this even more interesting is the woman’s character.

If one had read Graham’s memoir, “Personal History”, one would learn that for years, she had suffered from an inferiority complex since childhood, due to her strained relationship with her more assertive mother. In fact, her father, who was the newspaper’s original owner, had handed over the newspaper to her husband, Philip Graham, instead of her. And she saw nothing wrong with her father’s decision. Following her husband’s death, Graham found herself publisher of The Post. During the movie’s setting – June 1971 – not only did Graham found herself dealing with Ben Bradlee’s urgent demand that the newspaper publishes the Pentagon Papers, but also with the newspaper’s stock market launch. Even worse, Graham also found herself facing a board of directors who did not take her seriously as The Post‘s publisher.

So in the end, “THE POST” was more than about the Papers itself and the question of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. It seemed to be about how an unpopular war had an indirect impact upon a woman’s life through a political scandal. The movie also seemed to be about a struggle between the media’s belief in free press in order to inform the people and the government’s belief in its right to control what the people should know. In a way, the Vietnam War and Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers established The Washington Post‘s rise as an important national newspaper. And it opened the public’s eyes about the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam – something that had been hidden from the government for over two decades. The war and Ellsberg also kick started Katherine Graham’s elevation as a newspaper publisher willing to take a risk for an important news story and of her self-esteem. Spielberg’s movie could have simply been about The New York Times‘s scoop with its publication of the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers and its battle with the Nixon Administration. But as I have earlier pointed out, his narrative has been seen in past productions.

Aside from my disappointment with Kamiński’s cinematography, there were other aspects of “THE POST” I admired. I certainly had no problems with Rick Carter’s production designs. One, he did an admirable job of re-creating Washington D.C. and New York City circa 1971. And I was especially impressed that both Carter and set decorator Rena DeAngelo’s recreation of The Washington Post‘s newsroom was as accurate as possible. I had learned that the newsroom depicted in the 1976 movie, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” was slightly larger. Apparently, sometime between the newspaper’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, its newsroom had been renovated and enlarged. Good catch on Carter and DeAngelo’s part. Hollywood icon Ann Roth designed the costumes for the film and I must say that I was impressed. I was not impressed because I found her costumes dazzling or memorable. I was impressed because Roth, who had also served as costume designer for three of director Anthony Maghella’s films, perfectly captured the fashion styles of the conservative Washington political set of the early 1970s.

Both Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks earned acting nominations – for their portrayals of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Streep is the only one who earned an Academy Award nod. I am a little conflicted about it. On one hand, I cannot deny that the two leads gave very good performances. Streep did an excellent job in conveying Graham’s emotional growth into her role as her late husband’s successor as owner of The Washington Post. And Hanks was first-rate as the ambitious and tenacious Bradlee, who saw The Post‘s acquisition of more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers as a step into transforming the newspaper as a major national periodical. The movie also featured an interesting performance from Bob Odenkirk, who portrayed Ben Bagkikian, the assistant editor who had decided to set out and find Ellsberg after the Attorney General’s Office forced The New York Times to cease publication of the Papers. Another interesting performance came from Bruce Greenwood, whose portrayal of the besieged former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara really impressed me.

I was surprised to discover that “THE POST” won a Best Ensemble award from the Detroit Film Critics Society. But you know what? Perhaps I should not have been that surprised. With a cast that included Carrie Coon, David Cross and Philip Casnoff; I really enjoyed those scenes featuring Bradlee with his senior staff, whether they were discussing or examining the Pentagon Papers. The movie also featured solid performances from Bradley Whitford, Sarah Poulson, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stulhbarg, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemmons, Pat Healy, and Zach Woods.

I can honestly say that I would not regard “THE POST” as one of my top five favorite movies directed by Steven Spielberg. In fact, I am not sure if I would regard it as one of his best films. But the movie proved to be one of my favorites released in 2017, thanks to Spielberg’s direction, a first-rate screenplay written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and an excellent cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. I have a feeling that it is one movie that I would never get tired of watching.

Advertisements

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spyRudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice. Rylance’s performance paid off with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.