“The Post”–High Stakes

 

The Post movie

Perhaps no other film this year captures two important political moments of our time: the issue of fake news and “me too”, the invisibility of women’s voices, until they were not. The Post is high-stakes filmmaking. Released this month, The Post is already receiving wide-ranging, intensely opposing reviews.

The Post opens with a scene of an American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg shocked by the depths of continued deceit in hiding the loss of American lives in the Vietnam War, under four successive presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson). Ellsberg photocopies 7000 pages of top secret government reports commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (See my December 15, 2011 review, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Paper” Now he is determined to shed light on the deceit by leaking the incriminating papers to The New York Times.

Only after the US Department of Justice secures an injunction against The New York Times, on the ground of threats to national security, do the Pentagon Papers become The Washington Post’s story and, therefore, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s story.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Ben Bradlee (editor-in-chief) and Katherine Graham (The Washington Post owner) in a flashpoint in our history: the courageous decision, in 1971, to publish the Pentagon Papers, which then contributes to the end of the Vietnam War as well as bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The Post Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham

Katherine Graham, with no experience in the industry, has just assumed control of her family’s second-place local newspaper, The Washington Post,. The newspaper has neither significant power nor readership, and she is advised to take the company public since it is running at a financial loss. After her unfaithful husband has committed suicide, Katherine takes over the helm but she is fearful of losing her family’s newspaper legacy, having to lead in a man’s world where women do not manage corporations. Ben Bradlee gives her both respect and reminds her of the challenges of becoming a newspaper CEO.

Perhaps one of the most powerful and climactic moments in the film is when Katherine Graham, whose son has safely returned from Vietnam, realizes that US presidents’ lies have killed tens of thousands of young men over a period of two decades or more. Her turmoil anchors the film. Personal friends with Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, masterminds of the Vietnam War, Katherine Graham has multiple challenges to face and conflicting loyalties to balance in this high-stakes game: to publish or not to publish. Similarly, Ben Bradlee, who had been close to John F. Kennedy and proud of his association, is disillusioned as well.

The tensions keep rising. The Washington Post has just had an IPO. How will investors react? Will Graham and Bradley be prosecuted for revealing top secret documents? Will she lose the company she has inherited from her father and grandfather, hoping to bequeath The Washington Post to her children? How can she publish such damning material about her personal friends?

The Post bristles with intelligence. Every role is brilliantly cast: Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”) and Sarah Paulson (“The Case of O.J. Simpson” and “American Horror Story”) have brief onscreen roles but commanding speeches.

While the memory of the 1970s is still momentous for many, the context of a president in the Oval Office detesting and trying to muzzle the media bears an unmistakable parallelism with political events today. Such a thing could never again happen in America, right?

Note: Companion films and series to watch along with The Post are The Most Dangerous Man in America, All the President’s Men , and the superb, unforgettable Ken Burns’ PBS Series, The Vietnam War. Look for my review of the Ken Burns’ tour-de-force in the near future.

Note: Viewers who believe that the newspaper beacons–The New York Times and The Washington Post–are outdated and irrelevant, will enjoy disliking this movie. For those born in the seventies and later, this may seem like irrelevant history but in reality it is a lesson to be learned. If you remember the breaking into a locked door of the Democratic National Committee, you will have to explain this ending scene to the millennials who will not know the significance.

 

“Suffragette”—Suffering for the Right to Vote

 

SuffragetteThis 2015 film about women fighting for the right to vote in England tackles an almost forgotten but nevertheless compelling struggle for women and men alike. Don’t take that right for granted. The suffragette movement in England has received less cinematic attention than in the US [2004 film “Iron Jawed Angels” about the American suffragette Alice Paul] until now, with the release of Suffragette.

Suffragette opens outside a London laundry in 1912, where 24-year-old Maud Watts (the talented Carey Mulligan) has worked in squalid conditions as a laundress since she was a child. While delivering laundry, she accidentally witnesses a riot for the right to vote. One of her co-workers is participating in the suffragist movement and soon Maud becomes involved, almost against her will. When the co-worker cannot testify before parliament about the moral obligation to give women their right to vote, Maud becomes the reluctant witness who gives testimony.

The leader of the women’s movement is Emmaline Pankhurst (a cameo role from Meryl Streep) who inspires women to challenge the status quo. When parliament does not follow through on their promise to change the law, Maud soon learns about the consequences of fighting for women’s rights, including the collusion on the part of the government, business, and police.

Pankhurst’s main organizers, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and her sympathetic husband, encourage Maud to take an increasingly high-risk role which results in a criminal record and family disintegration. As the government continues to ridicule the idea of women voting, the movement builds and succeeds in winning equal voting rights eight years after the US ratifies the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution.

The cast is exceptionally strong and watchable. Nonetheless, the film suffers from a curious “saggy middle” in the narrative, when the passion and emotionally electrifying hopelessness of the women should be rising to a crescendo. The cinematographer lingers on scenes too long, minimizing the painful sacrifices being made, but beautifully recreating historical London.

Suffragette is an eye-opening film with political relevance for today. It is a reminder that not so long ago half of America was disenfranchised. It speaks for the suppressed and silenced, not exclusively to the women’s rights movement but to all human rights battlegrounds. The sacrifice women made in England for the right to vote—including force feeding suggestive of water-boarding—reminds of us what is at stake.  Suffragette could have been even better, but it shouts: go out to vote!

 

“August: Osage County”– Family Secrets and Lies

 “August: Osage County”, the Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, has been released as an Academy-Award nominated movie starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and an affecting Julia Roberts, together with a stunning supporting cast.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTYThe story is a disquieting look at the dysfunctionality of an American family with secrets and lies that keep coming and coming, when the viewer least expects them.

“August” opens in Osage County, Oklahoma, with an alcoholic academic, Beverly (the superb Sam Shephard), who likes to quote TS Eliot, interviewing a young Native American woman as a caregiver for Violet, his drug-addicted wife, who has  cancer of the mouth.  The cancer is most likely symbolic of Violet’s combative nature and the demons who are devouring her from within.

On a blistering hot day in August, Beverly sets out on his small boat and mysteriously goes missing. Beverly’s three adult daughters return to their family home, along with their husbands or lovers and their children, together with Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, and her husband Charlie with their son Little Charlie (a grown man.)  Secrets and lies surround Beverly’s disappearance, the major plot in “August: Osage County.”

The family’s dark past is painfully brought into the light, not only as it centers on the dying matriarch but also on the three daughters who have tried, and failed, to find loving relationships.  Mattie Fae is as complicated as Violet.  Revelations do not heal but simply damage further.  Each character chooses to hold on to their own lies rather than face reality and all its consequences. The viewer is the silent witness to the family wars.

As in other roles in which Streep inhabits an unsympathetic character (think:  “Kramer vs. Kramer,”  “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Iron Lady)” her understanding of each role makes you understand how each of these characters became damaged as well as draconian.  None of them are one-note stereotypes but layered, subtle, and original portrayals. Some critics disagree, but for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what I consider a shattering, unforgettable performance by Meryl Streep as a mother from hell. Please share whether you thought Streep overacted or got it just right.

“Hope Springs”…Eternal: Senior Sex Anyone?

Don’t be fooled by the trailers that depict this as a rom-com.  A  poignant portrayal of two  seniors who have drifted apart, not only as empty nesters, “Hope Springs” reveals  a hollowed-out existence between an aging husband and wife.

In the opening scenes, we see Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) getting ready to go to bed…in separate rooms.  Their sex life has virtually ended.  Rapidly growing moribund, their thirty-one year-old marriage needs professional help.

Arnold, the clueless accountant who has rigid habits his wife abhors, thinks there isn’t a problem. He uses his sleep apnea and back problem as excuses for no longer having sexual lives. However, Arnold’s co-worker suggests that he wishes he had done something to save his own marriage.  Scared, Arnold succumbs to the pressure and follows Kay begrudgingly to Maine for therapy.  In spite of resistance and dread at the thought of revealing their sexual failings to a stranger, Arnold does want to save his marriage. As he starts feeling his wife’s hurt, he becomes aware of his own.  He’s damaged and scared and you believe in him.

Enter the professional help–Dr. Feld (a surprising role superbly underplayed by Steve Carell). Kay confesses to Dr. Feld in therapy, as he listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally to her restrained pleas,and begins to understand the couple’s unhealed wounds.  We watch this couple from Omaha, Nebraska attempt to rejuvenate their marriage by healing: through intimacy “exercises” suggested by Dr. Feld. 

Kay and Arnold practice touching, kissing, and acting out their sexual fantasies.  What could be hilarious as well as comic relief–the banana-eating scene, for example, –is timidly glossed over. But there are some remarkable scenes that pinch the heart. “Hope Springs” floats over the understandable awkwardness of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially when discussing sex, hidden desires and raw emotions.

There are laughs too. Streep’s and Jones’ wonderfully uneasy and highly fumbling “love” scenes make their discomfort absolutely charming. Senior sex is bravely filmed without slapstick (there are a few cheap gags) or demeaning vulgularity. This in itself is a pioneering cinematic maneuver in a world where any parental sex, let alone senior sex, is a horrifying “eww” factor.  Like all good comedy, this movie goes for truth more often than laughs and makes you feel the pain that sets the laugh in motion.

In the hands of less stellar actors, “Hope Springs” could have been a  major cornball of a movie, but thankfully Streep and Jones tap into  something genuine, complex, and endearing in their characters’ quirks. The filmmakers vacillate between trusting their audience with this unusual theme and playing down to them.  When they are bravely exploring the theme of mature sexual issues and aging, this movie is elevated to a substantial and worthwhile film–to defining a moment for a demographic mostly ignored by the film industry.

“The Iron Lady” — Meryl Streep Nails It

 Winner of the best actor 2012 Golden Globe for her stunning performance in “The Iron Lady”, Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, the iconic Prime Minister second only to Winston Churchill in power and impact on Great Britain. “The Iron Lady” is, at times, an exceptional meditation on old age and it is, once more, a virtuoso performance by the genius that is Meryl Streep.

First and foremost, however, “The Iron Lady” is a portrait of Thatcher as a woman whose tremendous sacrifices to family and identity were viewed, both by her and by her advisors, as necessary in order to become the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. Zooming in on the floor in the House of Parliament, the shot captures it all: a solitary pair of high-heel shoes among rows of Oxford wing-tips.

The opening scene lingers on a very elderly Thatcher (mid-eighties), struggling with dementia, as she talks to her husband Denis (the never-disappointing Jim Broadbent). Denis has been dead for about five years. But the ex-Prime Minister’s husband appears throughout the film as a hallucination in the frail psyche of the aging woman.

Margaret Thatcher’s story is told in flashbacks that take us back to her adolescence and young adulthood (played believably by Alexandra Roach).  In one noteworthy scene, the young Margaret tells her parents with barely contained excitement, that she has been accepted into Oxford University.  The camera cuts away to her mother, who continues to wash dishes in silence.  Much later in the film, the elderly Margaret repeats the same dishwashing in a scene with her own daughter, who yearns for validation from her. Scenes with a plate of butter, which appear several times, also convey an analogy–its importance as a special treat in her youth as a grocer’s daughter, to the accepted presence on the breakfast table at 10 Downing Street. Flashbacks to her own childhood and that of her own parenting underscore the disconnect to her own children, especially her daughter.

Meryl Streep never disappoints in cloning the character she inhabits. She is not merely imitating Thatcher, but rather channeling her physicality– right down to her speech, which is transformed from her natural pitch to a more “masculine” and “authoritative one”. Chameleon-like in facial expression and body language, Streep mesmerizes with the slightest-of-slightest hand and body tremors, the shifts in posture and gait to reflect the passage of time. Extraordinary makeup never distracts, except to astonish by making Streep almost unrecognizable.  Watch the way she moves and, if you remember seeing Margaret Thatcher on television, you’ll swear you’re seeing her as she walks along.  Streep perfects this every time (as many of us remember with her uncanny portrait of Julia Child). Her award-winning performance is achingly honest in its understanding and interpretation of Thatcher’s powerful intellect, motivations, even perhaps her unconscious.