News of the World is based on the Paulette Jiles’s bestseller by the same name. The story follows a sixty-something curmudgeonly widower, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a traveling newspaper reader. Captain Kidd entertains and informs townspeople–some of whom are illiterate– in small communities all over Texas: for the price of a silver dime. The year is 1870, five years after Reconstruction, and Texans still are disgruntled by their defeat after the end of the Civil War.
In the opening scene a Black man has been lynched and a ten-year-old blonde white girl (Helena Zengel) is hiding from Union authorities looking for her. The girl speaks only Kiowa, the language of the tribe who has raised her after killing her parents and her older sister in retaliation for the government’s land grab of their territories. She yearns to be with her Kiowa family.
At the insistence of the Union authorities Kidd reluctantly assumes responsibility for returning the girl to her German immigrant relatives, a task the girl resents. Kidd feels ill-equipped to accompany her there, a trip of several hundred miles, while continuing his itinerant life as a newspaper reader. But this is no ordinary Western and Kidd and the little girl he calls Johanna have challenges in establishing communication and trust in each other.
News of the World is marketed as a Western involving a horse-and-wagon road trip in a fight for survival in inhospitable, unwelcoming regions of the Texas Panhandle. But primarily it is a feel-good “old man and little girl” story of human decency and the need for family. Both Tom Hanks–who is made for this role–and Helena Zengel who performs the feat of conveying all of her angst without uttering more than a few words of English, Kiowa or German–make News of the World a gift for the heart.
Availability: Paid “theater” ticket for streaming.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a dramatization of the real-life friendship between the beloved Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) and the investigative reporter, Lloyd Vogel (a pseudonym for Tom Junod.). Vogel (played by Emmy winner Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), is a journalist known for being cynical and abrasive. He is given the assignment to profile the beloved PBS television host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Fred Rogers (the incomparable Tom Hanks), But he is determined to reveal that no one can have such a good and warm-hearted nature.
A feel-good story of kindness and integrity triumphing over cynicism, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a chronicle of the groundbreaking show which became a cultural touchstone for more than two generations of children. [The show ran on PBS from 1968-2001, with a total of 895 episodes.] Rather the US’s most beloved neighbor is intent upon demonstrating what a neighborhood really consists of. This takes great effort, introspection, and role-modeling. (For an excellent documentary of the history and development of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, see my review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, March 17, 2019.)
There is a dual plot. Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency prove to be an anodyne to Vogel’s unhealed wounds. This forces the reporter to reconcile with his own painful relationship with his father (played by an astounding Chris Cooper, most recently in “Little Women”). What children and their parents find endearing about Fred Rogers soon affects Vogel deeply: the psychological healing when Rogers probes Vogel’s feelings about his parents the same way he taps into children’s. The surprise for viewers is how much both the personalities–Rogers and Vogel–play off each other and gain strength from their relationship.
Tom Hanks channels Fred Rogers in a jaw-dropping performance, including his vocal range, body language, and facial expressions. The viewer gets a powerful, touching tribute to Fred Rogers and the impact he had on so many children’s lives. Matthew Rhys’s performance as Vogel matches the accomplished brilliance of Hanks. The death scenes for both Vogel’s mother and father are memorable and moving, with a theatrical sensibility of the stage, –stripped clean of any background noise or special effects–and a nuanced, impossible-to-forget performance by Chris Cooper. The entire ensemble cast couldn’t be better
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood manages to make you think about yourself and how you can change the world “in your own special way”. He tells millions of children all over the world that he likes them just the way they are. His demonstration of the impact of kindness, –and courageous and positive ways of thinking and dealing with our emotions,– makes feelings both “mentionable and manageable”. Speaking directly to the camera from his heart and transitioning to a make-believe world may be the most startling reality-TV show ever.
An unexpected delight to watch for every adult (but not young children). I thought it would be saccharine…it is not.
Note: Available as a Netflix DVD. May 22 is the 143rd day of the year and a celebration of the late Fred Rogers’ favorite number. Shorthand for “I love you.” Because there is one letter in “I,” four in “love” and three in “you.”) of the calendar year, has been designated as “143 Day” in tribute to Mr. Rogers.
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.
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.
[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.
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.