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.


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.


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.


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.

 The Circle (Ponsoldt; 2017)

The Circle is an adaptation of the novel by the same name by Dave Eggers who also worked on the screenplay alongside director James Ponsoldt.  It’s the story of Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman searching for a job which pays enough that she can help her rural working class, now unemployed, parents care for her father’s (Bill Paxton in his final film role) multiple sclerosis.  Her friend Annie (Karen Gillian) gets Mae an interview with The Circle, a tech firm in which Annie is a high ranking member of the inner circle (no pun intended).  Mae nails the interview, gets the job, and quickly rises up in the ranks of the company discovering along her meteoric journey that The Circle’s agenda may be far more nefarious than it seems on the surface.

If that summary seems trite, it is, but you haven’t heard the half of it.  If just being trite was this film’s only problem, I’d say I don’t recommend it and promptly forget about it ten minutes after writing this review.  But, the surface of the film The Circle is at least as rotten as the underbelly of the company The Circle.  The best part of the film is its cinematography and visual effects, these are best because while they are in no sense of the word creative nor innovative, they at least aren’t utterly incompetent.  The visual effects are almost entirely computer user interfaces overlayed on top of the action going on in the movie, and the camera work was little more than point the camera where stuff is going on, but the visuals at least had the skill of an infomercial.


As for the script, well I hope you like infomercials, because large chunks of this movie, nearly every time Tom Hanks is on screen, are fictional TED Talk style infomercials, and that isn’t even the screenplays worst transgression.  Almost all of Tom Hank’s scenes and almost all of the scenes which further the plot occur as a corporate mass meeting where hundreds of sit in a theater as The Circle’s founder Bailey (Hanks) gives a speech complete with Blu-tooth headseat outlying The Circle’s latest product and how wonderful it is, how it will change the world, and how proud everyone should be to be a part of this great company.  It’s probably meant to be unsettling and imply to the audience that something creepy is going on at The Circle, but that is so obvious just from the premise of the film, that we don’t need these scenes to imply that, let alone over and over again.

The other problem with these scenes and the ultimate problem with the script overall, is that the vision of this film is so flaky, so scattered, so unfocused, that I have no idea what the film makers’ point is.  Is this a satire of our Facebook obsessed society?  Is this a warning about how we are gradually losing all right to privacy in our society?  Is it saying privacy is overrated and we function far better as a culture with true transparency?  I have no idea.  These are all topics touched on, as are holding our leaders up to the same standards we are, the way the internet has transformed how we interact with each other, and a few other “Black Mirror” style topics, but when all is said and done I can’t figure out what lesson or viewpoint, if any, the writers and director wanted me to walk away with.   Every one of the topics I mention above was touted as both a positive and a negative, but the film’s end suggests that Ponsoldt and Eggers intended us to walk away with a message, they just did a horrid job at getting across which message it is.


There is one aspect of The Circle which is even worse than its writing, and that is its acting.   Tom Hanks performance is essentially just a charming Tom Hanks style infomercial, and as awful as that sounds to watch for close to two hours, it is the best performance on display here.  Emma Watson is once again wooden and robotic,  seemingly incapable of showing any emotion or displaying any passion, convincing me more and more that she just is not a good actress and perhaps she should have retired after hanging up Hermoine.  I hope that is not the case, and she finds something within herself eventually, but nearly everything she’s done since Harry Potter has been barely watchable.  Most of the other cast members line up with Watson where wooden and dull is concerned, but one performance, that by Ellar Coltrane as Mercer is so horrible, it could be the origin of a drinking game, and I honestly can’t see how it made its way into a professionally made movie.  Coltrane somehow manages to scream every line without any emotion to them whatsoever as he stares blankly at something off screen for every second he is on screen.  It’s seriously embarrassing and the only reason it won’t be a front runner for a Razzie at year’s end, is because its a smaller role in a film very few are going to even remember.


Final verdict:  Emma Watson hasn’t shown the greatest judgement when it comes to choosing her film roles since she finished Harry Potter, so that may explain how she came to be in this travesty of a movie, but Tom Hanks had to have been blackmailed.  That’s the only explanation I can think of.  The Circle is a movie that defies genre, but not because it’s so original, rather because it has no idea what it wants to be or what it wants to say.   Nearly everything about the movie is amateurish and uncomfortable, and the only reason I would ever recommend it is for some sort of MTS3K party in which a lot of drinking is involved.  Then I could see it actually being kind of a blast.