Post interium Post
I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I'm getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the 'unique moment' which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year's awards season, where the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.
Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can't seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it's really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg's The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it's a topical movie.
And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.
And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government's involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon's White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.
But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham's lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump...?
Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers' considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.
The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it's about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it's all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)
On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes célèbres, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.
Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there's an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.
There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian 'It's time we learned the TRUTH!' ad campaign, to which my response was, 'the truth about what, exactly?' The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post essentially represents the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it's as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if the film itself doesn't wind up playing a role in shortening the Trump regime, it's not for want of trying.
Those Oscar Nominations Deciphered
'Ooh, box ticking in progress,' said a friend – not, I should say, someone who is usually of a particularly cynical bent – as we passed by a TV screen on which the Oscar nominations were in the process of being announced, suggesting that the somewhat atypical diversity amongst the nominees might be an attempt at making a statement. But then whenever I say anything about the Academy Awards, it always comes with the caveat that they are about politics and the film industry's image of itself rather than the actual quality of the films which are honoured.
This year's nominees for Best Picture, for example, break down fairly neatly into either films which are making a comment on the (here we go again) unique moment currently underway in western society, or the traditional 'zombie nomination' given to certain kinds of films and performer almost reflexively – a true-life historical drama is almost infinitely more likely to get an awards nomination than a horror or science fiction movie.
That list in full and why a cynical person might suggest it has been nominated:
Call Me by Your Name: Film about the plight of people following alternative lifestyles.
Darkest Hour: Kind of a zombie nomination (historical bio-pic). Also about the plight of a very fine actor who's never won an Oscar, mainly because he keeps doing blockbuster genre movies.
Dunkirk: Also a zombie nomination. I'm almost inclined to hope these two very similar films neutralise each other, as it would be rather disappointing if Christopher Nolan's least impressive film in years is the one he finally gets recognised for.
Get Out: Film about the plight of African-Americans (especially those in danger of involuntary brain transplants). That said, rare for a horror movie to get a nomination, so not to be lightly dismissed.
Lady Bird: Film about the plight of women, especially women directors who historically really struggle to get nominated. Then again, I've been a Greta Gerwig fan for years, and it would be great if she won.
Phantom Thread: Zombie nomination – I suspect that if Daniel Day-Lewis rocked up in the next Fast and Furious film both he and it would end up on the Oscar shortlist.
The Post: Film about the plight of decent, liberal media types under threat from evil lying president. Also historical true story. See previous review.
The Shape of Water: Film about the plight of people in mixed-race relationships (in this case, she is human, he is a fish). I'm actually really looking forward to finally seeing this one, and hope it's on the list on merit.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: As I mentioned last week, this looks like a film about the plight of women and minorities in patriarchal America, but I think it's slightly more subtle than it first appears, suggesting that just because you're in the right, you can still be an intolerant nightmare, which is not a message a lot of progressive activists seem especially open to. Martin McDonagh has not been nominated in the directing category, sadly, which will probably hurt its chances.