“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.

 

The Circle– A Cautionary Tale

 

[David Spiselman is guest blogger for this review and author of CypherGhost, Book 7 of the Spies Lie series, an  Amazon bestseller, under his pen name D.S. Kane].

The Circle, based upon the 2013 bestselling novel by Dave Eggers, is a flawed movie but an important one. The Circle is the first movie to explore the balance between openness and privacy of technology in a way that delivers an indecisive conclusion for its viewers. It’s a polemic against technology and the Silicon Valley lifestyle, startup companies and how easy it is to assume easy answers to difficult questions. You can draw your own conclusions when you see the movie.

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and John Boyega are a stellar cast, and will keep you entertained. Mae Holland (Emma Watson) takes a job with the world’s most powerful social media company. and joins an experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics and personal freedom. Her participation in the experiment starts to have an impact on her friends’ lives, her family and that of the population at large.

While Dave Eggers, the author of the 2013 novel, claims he didn’t do much research, The Circle has the exact feel of the Google campus. I should know. My wife and I attended their pre-IPO party and it felt spooky seeing the movie version of what could be Google, Facebook, or any other of the massive tech giants up close.

The protagonist, Mae Holland, says “Secrets are lies.” This is a central theme of the movie, and it’s the scene you’ll revisit after you leave the theater. I advise you to see The Circle. You might dislike it. You may find it enlightening. But I don’t believe you’ll find it a waste of time and money.

“Bridge of Spies”—Channeling the Cold War

 

Bridge of Spies

The second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, “Bridge of Spies” lands a place in my “Top 10 Films of 2015” list.

In this historical drama, “Bridge of Spies” takes place during the heat of the Cold War—1957–Tom Hanks stars as the American attorney, James Donovan, who is asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (the formidable Mark Rylance) and later to negotiate the exchange of the downed US pilot Gary Powers for Abel.

The story is ripped from the headlines of fifty-nine years ago, Donovan, despite massive public disapproval, CIA obfuscation, and threats against his family, refuses to ignore Abel’s constitutional rights for a fair trial. Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) meets eyes with her embattled husband and, in that look, Donovan understands the high stakes in taking the moral position to which he tenaciously holds on. It’s startling when it happens. Fight for justice or for the safety of one’s own family?

When we are introduced to Abel, he is a soft-spoken man who spends the majority of his days painting. Occasionally he will journey to the local park, paints in hand, to take in the beauty of the day. His gentle manners and quiet demeanor lull the audience into caring about him. Abel is also occasionally followed by various members of the United States government. When the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and Powers is declared a spy, Donovan is designated to lead secretly the negotiation for the prisoner exchange.

Hanks gives another star-turn performance as Donovan. Solid, representing American core values, he would dominate the film if not for Mark Rylance who mesmerizes. He is amazing here. Rylance manages to command the viewer’s attention with facial and body gestures alone and very few lines of dialogue,. The supporting cast is equally strong, from Alan Alda as Donovan’s boss to Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife.

The film’s cinematography is also visually brilliant. East Berlin in 1957-1960 is recreated down to the razor wire on the wall. The mood of the screenplay by Charman and the Coens is perfectly captured.

Hank’s performance as Donovan is unflappable, displaying a tenacious determination beneath an affable charm and a stoic belief that everything can be resolved without bloodshed or ill feeling. He smiles and flatters, banters and cajoles while never taking his eyes off the prize. Mark Rylance provides a perfect counterweight to Hanks. His Rudolf Abel is silent and withdrawn. HIs words seem rationed and measured, following one-by-one from his lips: “Are you never afraid?” demands Donovan. “Would it help?” Abel replies.

A mixture of thriller, courtroom drama and history lesson, “Bridge Of Spies” makes for a riveting and unforgettable movie.