The Post (Spielberg; 2017)

The story I’ve heard is that Stephen Spielberg had always wanted to make a film based on The Pentagon Papers.  As one of the most important events in 20th Century American History, it’s been a story Speilberg felt deserved a big screen treatment.  On election night 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, though, due to Trump’s constant attack on the American press and by extension the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights it went from a story he wanted to make to a story that needed to be told so the American public could be alerted to the purpose of the American press and the dangers of an Executive Branch which portrays it as an enemy.

The film he came up with in that year is The Post.  It’s a straightforward telling of the story behind The Pentagon Papers and particularly The Washington Post’s role in their publishing.  The Washington Post was a third-rate newspaper in the early 1970s, and the paper’s owner had committed suicide not long before the film’s events leaving his wife, and the daughter of the paper’s founder, in charge.  That woman was Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and while The Washington Post had nowhere near the prestige of a New York Times or a Boston Globe at the time, it was still unusual for a woman to hold a position that lofty for any length of time.   Spielberg starts the story with someone working at the Department of Defense making the decision to get top secret documents showing that the US government has been lying to the public for decades about the Vietnam War to the New York Times for publication.  When the New York Times publishes just the first few pages of the Pentagon Papers, the White House orders them to cease publishing anything more on the leaked documents or face legal consequences.   Soon afterward, editor in chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) finds himself in possession of more of The Pentagon Papers and he and Kay have to make the choice whether to publish and risk going to prison for doing so.

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The Post is far from the most impressive film of the year, the most impressive element of its creation is the fact that it took just barely more than a year to create from germination of the idea to its being projected on screens, but it is a film very obviously made by seasoned professionals.  The cast are all excellent, but the most stand out performance is definitely Meryl Streeps’.  She gives us a Kay Graham who is very much a woman right out of her time and place.  She acts as a woman who loves running a newspaper, who realizes the power she has, but also realizes that she cannot alienate the powerful men in her life.  She’s not afraid to make difficult decisions, but it almost seems as if she’s seeking the permission and blessing of those around her whenever she does, and I like that authenticity to the time period in her portrayal.  As to the rest, Bruce Greenwood gives an excellent Robert McNamara impersonation, Bob Odenkirk continues to show that he’s more than just a good comedian, and if anyone is slightly miscast here it would have to be Tom Hanks, who is just too much of his normal nice guy persona to really sell the fact that he’s the template of the modern hard-nosed editor stereotype who is Ben Bradlee.

Aside from the acting, the rest of the production is what we’ve come to rely on from Stephen Spielberg, but will certainly never be considered one of the most impressive in his catalog.  The art direction and cinematography are both by the book but still appealing.  The script is straightforward, but still with snappy dialogue, excellent focus, and great pacing.  The most prominent element of the screenplay, though, is its razor-sharp focus.  There are no subplots in The Post to speak of, other than relationships which have a direct connection to how The Pentagon Papers’ story plays out, and even the dialogue is almost entirely focused on the unfolding story save for a handful of jokes here and there to keep things from getting too intense.

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So, The Post is a well-made film, but wouldn’t be truly notable outside Streep’s performance if it weren’t for the film’s purpose.  Spielberg had seen the parallels between Nixon’s attacks on the press and Trump’s attacks during his campaign.  We now know those attacks have continued proving Spielberg’s (and a large chunk of the world’s population) forboding correct so Spielberg used this story to show the ability and purpose of the press to speak truth to power.   Even if Trump hadn’t shown himself to be so adversarial to a free press as he was when campaigning, it’s still an important lesson for the American public.  Since he has, it’s not only an important lesson but one with parallels to one of the darkest times in American political history.

It’s easy to compare The Post to the Best Picture winner for 2015 Spotlight.  Both are films about the power of the press which rely on a taut script and powerful performances for their impact, the major difference being The Post is about abuse of political power while Spotlight centers on abuse of power by the church.  The Post is not quite the film Spotlight was – it doesn’t have the same level of intricacy in plot and character – but that doesn’t mean that its tight focus doesn’t have merit or purpose.

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Final verdict:  The Post is a film that relies heavily on the talent and experience of its cast and crew.  The fact that a film of this caliber could be put together so quickly is a true testament to those involved, particularly Meryl Streep who gives us a performance worthy of award mention in a year filled with incredible performances by strong woman leads.   Also worthy of mention is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer due to its incredible ability to teach while it entertains.  The Post is not the most entertaining, most nuanced, nor the most artistic film of the year, but it is the most important.

I, Tonya (Gillespe; 2017)

The purpose of a biopic, next to entertainment, is to show the audience how the writer and director of the film view a particular person and their story or place in history.  Normally, the view is positive, though some of the best biopics focus on some of history’s more nefarious individuals, and often the film’s creators try to be as objective and realistic as possible, but when Steven Rogers was interviewing the main figures involved in Tonya Harding’s career and found that none of them were telling the same story, he found his hook that would make the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya unique.  These interviews would actually be staged inside the film (with the actors playing the characters acting out the interview, not the actual interview subjects) and as the story plays out Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would break the fourth wall and let the audience know exactly what they think of the particular interpretation of the scene they are currently partaking in as if they were still in mid-interview.  Every character, while they were a part of the story, has their own version of it.  In I, Tonya truth is subjective.

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That subjectivity is the focal point of the writing in I, Tonya, and makes for an exceptional take on the biopic.  While fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in film is hardly new, in fact, it’s becoming something of an overused trope, the fact that the story of I, Tonya is not only true but also one most of the people seeing the film witnessed via television news at the time of the events brings a new life to the tropes which keep them from being overly cutesy.  It also means that the film ends up taking on a tone which is as much comedy as drama and this is important to the themes of the film, as well.  As Harding herself says at one point in the film first she was loved by everyone, then hated, then she became a punchline.  I, Tonya uses the world’s perception of her masterfully by alternately playing to those perceptions then subverting them, using the punchline perception of her and her companions to get us to laugh, then using the love and hate perceptions to peel back the curtain and show us just what it is we’re laughing at.  It’s a masterfully written film which uses subjective truths to allow for a story which is comic and tragic, inspirational and incriminating, beautiful and repugnant all at the same time without ever feeling inconsistent nor without ever breaking stride.

We generally tend to equate a great performance with embodying and understanding a character, and this is definitely an element of performance which has to be covered in order to be great, but the very best performances go beyond character and show that the actor understands the themes, tone, and message of the entire film.  That being the case, I, Tonya gives us a trio of truly remarkable performances.  Margot Robbie is the anchor embodying a Tonya Harding who is charming and sympathetic, but who we can also see is constantly making excuses for the fact that she allows others to control her life and probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that she does this.  Sebastian Stan is a great Jeff Gillooly who truly loves Tonya but is unable to recognize his own immaturity which causes him to lash out whenever it seems he may be in danger of losing her or whenever he comes close to recognizing his own failings.  Allison Janney may be best of all as the mother who both loves and resents her own child, who wants the best for Tonya but also despises her for the sacrifices Tonya is forcing her to make.  All three of the primary cast members give us not only fully realized people, but people that embody the themes of subjective truth in the way they are only able to see the half of their own reality which makes them out to be a good person and not the half of themselves which the world would consider ugly or a weakness.

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With one of the greatest scripts of the year and three of the finest performances, it’s almost like I, Tonya’s director of cinematography Nicolas Karakatsanis and film editor Tatiana S. Riegel decided they wouldn’t be outdone and on top of everything else gave us one of the most visually beautiful and intricate films of the year, as well.  From the sweeping shots of Tonya on the ice rink to the more intimate conversations shot from the perfect distance and angles with perfectly timed cuts to the long seemingly unbroken pans which must have involved some trickery in order to work.  While there were a few visuals which had me immediately gasping from the incredible talent on display, most of the film’s visual genius crept up on me later as I thought over certain performances and the film’s overall message and realized just how much the camera work added to both of those elements.

That’s actually a good way to describe I, Tonya overall.  It’s a film that creeps up on you with its genius.  Leaving the theater, I knew I had seen a really good movie, but I wondered at how authentic it was.  Was Tonya really such a tragic figure or is that just the filmmakers manipulating their audience to make their story more digestible?  Could the people involved in one the most famous crimes of all time really have been that stupid and/or ignorant or was it played up for comic effect?  As I thought more and more about what I had seen I realized that most of the usual questions one asks about a true story were questions that missed the mark.  This wasn’t meant to be half education half entertainment as most biopics are, but instead is an honest to goodness art film which also manages to be hilarious and crowd-pleasing in a way very few art films are.  It never intends to be authentic, it never intends to tell us the truth.  What it intends is to show us how each of us makes the truth a personal thing and that objectivity is an ideal which can never truly be achieved even if it’s something we should strive for.  But, it sugarcoats this rather depressing message in a true crime story about the world’s worst criminals so that we can take this message in in its entirety without even noticing that’s what’s happening.

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Final verdict:  I, Tonya is a movie that after a few days contemplation I have decided is not just really good, but is, in fact, a borderline masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2017.  Every single element of the film, except perhaps its too on the nose score (I liked it, but I know it will annoy more than a few), is near perfect.  It’s a film that uses many different forms of dishonesty in an attempt to not just expose the truth but to actually teach us what it means for something to be true.  This is one I not only recommend, this is one I ask you to rush right out and see so you can see the gorgeous visuals in larger than life proportions while simultaneously laughing and pondering things you thought you knew were true.

 

 

Molly’s Game (Sorkin; 2017)

The only screenwriters in Hollywood who have household names that I can think of are also either actors or directors, as well, save one – Aaron Sorkin.  Even if you’re not familiar with what he’s written you’ve almost certainly heard his name, but what he is known for is political drama with some of the snappiest, wittiest dialogue around.  He’s probably most famous for The West Wing, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network, but even if you haven’t seen one of these you have still likely seen something he’s written and were struck by his too smart and too thoughtful to be true characters spouting off funny and poignant one-liners at a mile a minute.  Now, Sorkin brings us Molly’s Game, but this time he wasn’t content to just write the screenplay.  For the very first time, he got behind the camera and sat in the director’s chair himself.

Molly’s Game the movie is based on “Molly’s Game” the book, the autobiography of Molly Bloom.  Molly Bloom was an Olympic level downhill skier who had to drop out of the sport and through the series of events covered in the book and film became a power player by running a regular poker game for some of the world’s biggest power (and poker) players.  It’s a fascinating story about a woman so strong-willed and intelligent that she can be within spitting distance of achieving her dream, lose it all, then climb right back to the top again with nothing, not even a dream nor a real plan, but just whatever happens to fall in front of her.  Plus, she keeps her integrity and sticks to an ethical code on top of it all.

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Sorkin went with Jessica Chastain as the titular Molly Bloom.  I think I am in a minority when I say this, but I have never thought Chastain is a good actress.  She’s incredibly stiff in her delivery of dialogue and her stone face doesn’t help at all which essentially makes her a more voluptuous Kristen Stewart.  What Chastain is good at aside from choosing scripts (she may not be a fantastic actress, but the film’s she is in are for the most part wonderful), however, is speaking quickly with good enunciation and intensity.  Since Molly’s Game is written by Aaron Sorkin it takes someone who can do exactly that, and after having now seen this film I believe that Jessica Chastain could be the greatest mouthpiece to ever have delivered Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – it plays perfectly to her strengths and vice versa.  Even her voice-over narration which is used throughout the entire film and which I usually perceive as a crutch which hurts a film is used excellently allowing us to enter the mind of the main character without having to break her tough facade or pause the rapid fire pacing of the film and its dialogue.

As for the other actors and their dialogue, none are quite so perfectly matched as Chastain, but all give excellent performances.  Michael Cera as “Player X” (who is actually Toby Maguire if rumors are to be believed, but no celebrities are named in the film) is the best at delivering Sorkin’s machine gun style dialogue after Chastain, surprisingly, and showed a talent at portraying a smugly confident scumbag I didn’t realize he had, though I probably should have.  Idris Elba and Kevin Costner are also both fantastic, but neither seem to be delivering Sorkin’s dialogue in the manner we’re used to, which makes me think they must have adapted Sorkin’s words to fit their own personal style and this is not a problem, this is a testament to just how talented these two are and how well they understand their craft.

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As for Sorkin, is he as talented a director as he is a writer?  Of course not, but he does show wisdom in his direction by sticking to what he knows, i.e. dialogue and story, and by not doing much to show off where visuals, editing, and other more subtle directorial duties and decisions are concerned.  The art direction is well done, Sorkin has a definite eye for city skyline shots, and he does allow himself some stylistic panache in the film’s opening, but overall what we have is a very straightforward directorial style which doesn’t really set itself apart from any number of newly out of film school directors.  He lets his writing be the element that does that.

The thematic elements of Molly’s Game are incredibly timely.  The main takeaway from the film is its depiction of a woman who understands the power games men play and manages to sidestep all of that by playing her own game and never allowing herself to become a part of theirs, not purposely, at least.  Without spoiling anything, it’s the moment Molly gets drawn into the games the men play and not just hosting them in her own that her world begins to implode.  (Since the entire film is interspersed with her meetings with her criminal defense lawyer, it’s not a spoiler to mention that implosion.)  While sexual harassment is barely even touched on in the film, it’s because they show how well Molly understood sexual politics and power and absolutely would not let those elements tarnish her game and that anyone not willing to leave that shit at the door would not be welcome back.  It’s a wonderfully practical feminist message that doesn’t depend on idealism and inspiration to get across but shows a real-world example of just how a woman can establish her own power under her own rules without men trying to undermine her nor really even notice they aren’t in control of the game.

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Final verdict:  In a year of feminist films, Molly’s Game manages to make its mark by giving the most practical and realistic portrayal of feminism of any of them and has Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and storytelling to make that portrayal fast-paced and gripping.  All the performances are wonderful, even Jessica Chastain who is surprising in just how proficient she is at the delivering the quickly paced witticisms of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, and Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut shows why he’s a true professional by not trying to bite off more than he might be able to chew.  Molly’s Game is a phenomenal story with some of the best writing of the year, and is one I absolutely recommend.  It’s not necessary to see it in theaters, but if you do decide to pay full price for it you will not be disappointed in the slightest.  Molly’s Game is worth it.