Movie Reviews - 2017 postsWednesday March 07, 2018
Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
It’s tough watching a movie based on history you know.
At first, it’s the little things. This movie opens with kids pulling red wagons full of comic books, chiefly “Wonder Woman,” from door to door in an idyllic American neighborhood. “Probably a comic-book burning,” I thought. Those were prevalent in the late 1940s—part of what author David Hajdu in The Ten-Cent Plague calls “the pathologies of postwar America.” And that’s what this is. The kids take the comics to a field, make a pile, light it on fire, dance around. Watching sadly in the glow is a much-too-handsome version of Prof. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), creator of Wonder Woman.
Then we cut to an interrogation of Marston by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of Child Study Association of America, and we’re told it’s 1945. Except they didn’t have comic-book burnings in 1945. We were too busy fighting a war. So is this a flashback? Doesn’t seem like it. Plus Marston died in 1947 anyway. So how could he have watched comic-book burnings in 1949?
But you let it go. It’s minor. “Chronology.” Still, you have questions, and after the movie you do a little internet research.
This interrogation of Marston frames the film, and, within it, Josette Frank comes off as officious and powerful, her organization like an early version of the Family Research Council. “Doctor Marston,” she says. “Wonder Woman has drawn criticism for being full of depictions of bondage, spanking, torture, homosexuality, and other sex perversions. ... Would you care to explain yourself?” So to the obvious question: Did Josette Frank exist?
She did. Except ... she was actually a proponent of comic books at a time when many professionals thought they were bad for kids. She even served on the Editorial Advisory Board at National/DC Comics, from which, yes, she did complain to publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) about the bondage scenes in “Wonder Woman.” But an interrogation? In which Marston is defensive, Gaines is sweating, and Frank holds all the cards? Not even close. In real life, she had so little power she resigned from the board. In the movie, she’s so powerful that after her cross-examination Marston collapses, sick, and eventually dies. From what? The movie doesn’t say. For the record, it was polio, a stroke and skin cancer, all of which he contracted in his final three years. Bam bam bam. Age 53. Too young. But the movie makes it seem that Josette Frank and her ilk—people too square to think bondage scenes are cool in children’s stories—are somehow responsible.
Why would writer-director Angela Robinson (“The L Word”) do this? To a real person? A woman so beloved her org’s annual children’s book award is now named for her? What am I missing?
So I read “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” by Yale professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, to find an answer. And I did. The answer is the movie sucks.
Of the literary biopics released last fall (Salinger, Milne, Dickens), I had the highest hopes for “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,“ since its backstory was least-known and most complicated.
Here are the complications.
Wonder Woman, the most popular female superhero of all time, was created by a man who lived with two women: his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), with whom he had two children; and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a former student, with whom he had two children.
How does Robinson make this fact palatable to audiences in the #MeToo age? By suggesting that the two women are more interested in each other than in Marston. Olive is really in love with Elizabeth, and vice-versa. Marston is almost their beard. It’s almost a lesbian love story.
Except .... According to Lepore, who had access to Marston family records, that three-way living arrangement occurred when Marston delivered an ultimatum to his wife: Byrne would either live with them, or he would leave her and live with Byrne. Poor Elizabeth! Except ... No, she was looking out for herself, too. She realized that Marston's ultimatum was the answer to her dilemma—the modern woman's dilemma. She could have the babies she wanted, and then go back to the career she wanted, because Olive would be there to raise the babies. Win win. For her. And Marston. Byrne, that's up in the air.
So really less Lesbos, more Joseph Smith.
Even so, Marston was an early feminist, and that feminism is evident in early “Wonder Woman” comics. “I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message,” Gloria Steinem said in 1972 before putting Wonder Woman on the cover of the first Ms. magazine. That was all Marston. If he wasn’t writing it, Wonder Woman fell back on the gender stereotypes of the day. When she joined the Gardner Fox-written ”Justice Society of America," he made her its secretary; the male superheroes went off to fight and she stayed behind and cleaned up. No joke. Marston’s comic included a four-page section called “Wonder Women of History,” which featured short bios on the likes of Clara Barton, Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. Once he died, it was replaced with a section on weddings, while Wonder Woman spent a lot of her time scheming, or pining, to marry Steve Trevor. She became Lois Lane with superpowers.
So bravo for Marston’s feminism. Except ... it did have some kinks in it.
“Women enjoy submission—being bound,” he wrote to Gaines after Frank suggested removing the bondage scenes from Wonder Woman. He added: “This, my dear friend, is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to the moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority, wise authority, not merely tolerate such submission. Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound.”
Marston is a maddening character: progressive and not; brilliant and a charlatan. While at Harvard, he created an early version of the lie detector test but may have fudged the results. He did win a nationwide screenwriting contest, and the movie, “Jack Kennard, Coward,” was subsequently produced by the Edison Company. He should have gone to Hollywood. Instead, he got a law degree, taught law, and was involved in a landmark case, Frye v. United States, that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. It turned on the issue of when new scientific testimony (in this case, his lie detector) might be deemed admissible in court. But Lepore uncovers squeamish details: 1) Frye’s lawyers were actually Marston’s students, who, in their appeal, 2) seemed more interested in proving the efficacy of Marston’s lie detector than in their client’s innocence. Marston later claimed that his role in the Frye case opened “a wedge” for lie-detector evidence in court; Lepore writes, “Nothing could have been further from the truth; the Frye case closed the door on that evidence.” Frye, an African American, and poorly represented by Marston’s students, wound up serving 18 years in prison.
None of this is in the movie, by the way, except for the creation of Marston’s lie detector—which Robinson sets not when Marston was a student at Harvard but 10 years later when he was an assistant professor at Tufts and Olive Byrne was his student. Robinson gives Byrne credit for the breakthrough.
So much is wrong here. Marston should be an overweight raconteur with a twinkle in his eye rather than this dull, handsome man-toy. So much is left out. During the 1930s, Marston kept appearing as a wise, benevolent psychiatrist in puff pieces for Family Circle magazine. Who wrote them? Olive Byrne, pretending she didn’t know Marston, let alone live with him, let alone ... everything else. One of these puff pieces, by the way, in which he expounded on the benefits of comics, is what led to his relationship with DC. In the movie? He just barrels into their offices. He cold calls.
Robinson even bends the fade-out graphics to suit her narrative:
After he died, Marston’s sexual motifs were stripped from the Wonder Woman comic book ... along with her super powers.
Sufferin' Sappho. Yes, the bondage scenes were removed from Wonder Woman in the late ’40s—as they should have. But removing her super powers? That happened two decades later, in 1969, for which the man responsible, legendary writer Denny O’Neil, has offered many a mea culpa. He also exiled Diana from Paradise Island and gave her a pants suit and a blind Chinese mentor. I think he thought he was doing the feminist thing. But it wasn’t what fans wanted. They wanted the bustier and boots and magic lasso. The problematic had become nostalgic.
The kicker to all of this? Olive Byrne, whose '20s-era bracelets inspired Wonder Woman’s, is actually the daughter of Ethel Byrne and the niece of Margaret Sanger, heroes of the suffragist/birth control movement. This is mentioned in the movie. Except ... they’re not exactly who we think they are, either. Ethel didn’t want to raise her daughter; Olive was physically tossed into the snow as an infant. Growing up, she hardly saw her famous mother and aunt.
History is more complex than we think, our heroes more complicated than we want. They’re rarely super.
- “The Surprising Origin of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore, Smithsonian.com
- “Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma” by Yereth Rosen in The Anchorage Press
- “Josette Frank, Alone Against the Storm” by Ken Quattro, the Comics Detective
- The history of the Josette Frank Award, Wikipedia
- “Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books” by Jeet Heer, Slate.com
- “Lasso of Truth: The curious tale of Wonder Woman’s creator”; Chad Jones interview with playwright Carson Kreitzer, SF GATE
- “Wonder Woman’s Surprising Back Story Has a Film of Its Own” by Mekado Murphy, The New York Times
- “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Jill Lepore
Movie Review: Phantom Thread (2017)
Why does Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) acquiesce to the poison in the end? I assume that's the question everyone asks as they leave the theater. And acquiesce so enthusiastically? With more love than he’s shown throughout? Is it that? Poison is his avenue to weakness and weakness is his avenue to love? Or is it subtler? He’s a control freak and this is a way to give up control for a time. It's a vacation. He gets sick to go on vacation from his awful self.
Even before the poisonings began, I got a whiff of the serial killer amid the movie’s stifled beauty. Woodcock, a 1950s haute couture fashion designer, takes Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, for a ride in his Bristol 404 sports car in the British countryside at night, and for a second I flashed on Alex and his droogs doing the same in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” (Did Paul Thomas Anderson intend this?) Later, Woodcock peeks through a peephole at how his fashion show is doing, or how Alma is doing in it, and I flashed on Norman Bates doing the same with an undressing Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” (I know PTA intended that.)
Beyond these allusions, there’s just a quiet, insinuating creepiness throughout. How a dinner date with a gentle, handsome fashion designer turns into something else. How quickly his questions turn to directives. He’s not interested in who she is but in what she’ll become. What he can make her become. She’s fabric he can stitch into something beautiful.
See? Right there. It doesn’t take much to push the story into serial killer realm. Particularly with Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), sitting cold-eyed on the attic couch while Alma disrobes and measurements are taken.
Then Alma flips the tables. She turns “Psycho” into “Misery.”
We saw what happened to Alma’s predecessor. She disturbed the careful quiet of breakfast with her questions, the proffer of rolls, the uncareful buttering of toast. She’s gone without a second thought.
But what attracts Reynolds to Alma? Her clumsiness? The sense that there’s something prettier behind the waitress garb? That she doesn’t question him—or that she does?
Woodcock brings up death himself. “There’s an air of quiet death in this house,” he says. He talks about secrets. “When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments; things that only I knew were there. Secrets.” I’m not sure the meaning of this but I love the way Day-Lewis says it.
From the trailer, and for much of the film, I assumed Woodcock was gay, and closeted, and miserable, but maybe he’s just miserable. As in SOB. He forces his exactitude on the world and it’s never enough. He’s insufferable. Alma cooks him asparagus in butter rather than oil, and he says, “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.” In the middle of his day, in the middle of his creative process, she brings him tea he didn’t ask for, and they argue. Upset, she leaves with the tea. “The tea is going out,“ he calls after her, ”but the interruption is staying right here with me!”
Confession: I identified with that line. Completely. Even as I was writing this review, which is hardly haute couture, my wife came down the hallway talking of a friend’s house-hunting difficulties and I just stared at her with that “in the middle of something” look until she left. In any creative process, there's that selfish need to stay inside your own head. And the less you can concentrate, the worse you act. When my wife is working on graphic design, you can play a John Philip Sousa march behind her and she won’t blink. She’s DiMaggio at the plate, Marshawn Lynch with the football. I call her “Beast Mode.” I envy her.
The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me. Even his one-liners are perfection.
What makes Cyril align with Alma? I haven’t figured that out. The predecessor she viewed with cold eyes, but somehow Alma wins her over. Maybe she’s just sick of Reynolds. Maybe I’ll have to see the movie again.
Most people wouldn’t want to return to that stuffy house, but PTA’s movies win me over. There’s a density to them. His movies feel beyond flickering images; they're palpable. Daniel Day-Lewis’ precise Reynolds Woodcock is heavier than all the CGI monsters in the world.
Ah, but his endings. He has so much trouble; he’s the anti-Hitchcock there. Yet for all your puzzlement as you leave the theater, debating why Woodcock does it, this may be one of his better endings. “I’m a confirmed bachelor,” Reynolds says at one point. “I’m incurable.” But Alma finds the cure.
Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017)
For a movie that agonizes over a decision that is now obvious to everyone (Nazi Germany: fight/not fight?), “Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), and starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, manages to be thrilling. It’s one of the few 2017 movies I saw where the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end.
Which makes sense. Other cinematic heroes may have the weight of the world on their shoulders, but here it’s actually true.
Unfortunately, McCarten and Wright do fudge the history a bit.
What’re we waitin’ fer?
Question: Does this fudging make the story more dramatic—or less so?
Do we need Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, this year’s crush), starting her job with the famously irascible and demanding man on the same day he is named Prime Minister, which also happens to be the same day Nazi Germany launched its war against Western Europe and threatened to end fucking everything? Aren’t these last two historical facts enough? Do we have to bump up Layton’s employment by a year? And why is Layton forever in the wings mouthing the words Churchill speaks—as if she were Ray Sharkey in “The Idolmaker”? Is the movie implying Churchill needs help? Is this supposed to be another endearing quality of Layton’s? Do we really need more to endear us to Lily James?
And what about that transatlantic phone call between a hemmed-in Churchill and a blasé Roosevelt? For all the faults of America, and the internal battles with America Firsters, FDR was never blasé about Europe. And that transatlantic hotline didn’t go up until 1943. (That said, it is a wrenching scene.)
But what we definitely don't need? That ride in the tube. Good god. It’s not only bullshit, it feels like bullshit. Worse, it doesn’t even make sense dramatically. Churchill has just been visited by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, stellar), who, previously, had kept his distance from the new PM. He hadn’t liked him much. He thought he was the wrong man for the role. But now, staring into the abyss, finally angry at the spot England is in, he allies with his PM. Meaning Winston has been given royal prerogative to fight. Meaning it’s like that scene in “Rocky II” when Adrian wakes up from her coma and tells Rocky to “win”! But instead of Mickey yelling, “What’re we waitin’ fer!” followed by a training montage to Bill Conti’s uplifting theme music, it’s like Rocky wanders down to the Italian Market and says, “I don’t know, what do youse think?” No! Go to Parliament, Winston! Go to your war cabinet. Win! V for fucking victory already!
I keep going back to that line from “The Insider”: Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. That's all you need. It’s about the isolation and the stakes. It’s about one man seeing the horrific future (if we don’t act) while everyone around him sees the tragic past (where acting led to horror). It’s about the leader being as trapped in the halls of government as any soldier on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Plus the person here isn't ordinary; and the pressure is beyond extraordinary.
We all want to change the world
Wright has maybe too many overhead flourishes, as if anticipating the blitz, but I like how he teases the intro of our hero: much talked-about before seen, as with Rick in “Casablanca.”
Oldman is great, yes. At times, I was reminded of Ned Beatty, at times I saw Gary Oldman in the eyes, but mostly it was like Churchill brought to life. The great man was 65 in May 1940, and between the booze and the cigars and the mumblings, Oldman sometimes makes him seem like an old 65. Watching, you’d be astonished to learn he lived another quarter century. He lived to see John Winston Lennon (b., Oct. 1940) and the Beatles take over the world.
The movie’s true value is putting us in the midst of the debate before history takes over; when the would-be disastrous decision seems, for a sad second, faintly reasonable. But I worry. Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation has been used to justify every war since—as if every two-bit tyrant were Hitler. That shouldn’t be the lesson people take from “Darkest Hour”...but they will.
Movie Review: Mark Felt (2017)
I get that “Deep Throat” was taken as a title, but surely there’s a less cumbersome subtitle than “The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Not to mention more accurate. The White House still stands, yo. It’s Nixon who was brought down.
Mark Felt was, of course, Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s garage freak, the man on deep background in the Woodward/Bernstein investigation into Watergate, which, yes, brought down the Nixon White House, paving the way for the Ford one, then Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and, yeah, here we are with the Trump White House and its attempts to control and/or malign the FBI. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to be fucking assholes.
So guess when Bob Woodward rears his pretty head in this movie? An hour in—two-thirds of the way through. He’s a blip. Hell, he’s not even Felt’s main press contact! That would be Sandy Smith of Time magazine (Bruce Greenwood), whom Felt meets in a diner like normal folk, and who, when Felt finally tells him to take out his notepad, warns him: “Mark, are you sure about this?” You know: like any true reporter on top of a world-breaking scoop would.
Smith is also one of the many characters who keep telling us who Felt is:
- Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore): “Mark Felt: Integrity, bravery, fidelity. Ladies and gentlemen, the G man’s G man!”
- Mrs. Felt (Diane Lane): “I give you the chief dragon slayer and guardian of the American dream!”
So why does Felt become more opaque the longer the movie goes on? And why does “Mark Felt,” which should bring greater clarity to Watergate—revealing the other side of “All the President’s Men”—bog us down in murkiness?
All we’ve got are pieces
It even begins wrong. On April 11, 1972, Felt goes the White House to meet with the three Johns of the Nixon administration: Dean (Michael C. Hall, a good match), Mitchell (Stephen Michael Ayers, not so good), and Ehrlichman (Wayne Pére, shitty). Referencing the antiwar protesters outside, we get this convo:
Ehrlichman: Goddamn Russian revolution out there. Why aren’t we arresting anybody?
Felt: Because that ... isn’t a crime.
So we’ve set up our dynamic in the most reductive way possible. Thanks, Hollywood.
The Johns are offering Felt a kind of quid pro quo: If J. Edgar Hoover is fired, would he be a friend to the administration? Maybe as director? But Felt is a company man, loyal to the Bureau and to Hoover. He’s so loyal to Hoover, in fact, that after being dismissed, he sticks around to give a long, exacting synopsis of FBI intelligence gathering regarding the peccadillos of Washington politicians—all of which Mr. Hoover keeps safely in his secret files. And if something should happen to Mr. Hoover? Who knows what will happen to them?
It’s a threat. From our hero. Our guy is someone who actually makes us feel sorry for Nixon's men. The fuck?
Most of “Mark Felt” is dimly lit, ominous, airless. We’re forever in closed rooms, forever getting close-ups of faces. Everyone is trying to figure things out. Everyone but Felt, who has them figured out and is trying to keep that knowledge from his face. He’s inscrutable. Do we even know when he decides to leak? Do we understand how he first meets Bob Woodward and why he goes to him?
The basic conflict is straightforward—not to mention topical. The Nixon administration wants to control the FBI, particularly its investigation into the Watergate affair, and Felt wants to keep the Bureau independent. Halfway through, we get a good scene that exemplifies this conflict. By this point, Hoover has died, and Felt has already determined that Hoover’s replacement, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), is doing Nixon’s bidding rather than the FBI’s. So Felt has begun to leak information about Watergate. John Dean calls him up to investigate and plug the leaks.
Dean: We want you to do something about it, Mr. Felt. Now.
Felt: Fine. But I don’t understand.
Dean: Which part?
Felt: The part about you calling me. The White House has no authority over the FBI.
Dean: Uh, we can—
Felt: At all, Mr. Dean.
Dean: But we can suggest—
Felt: I’m afraid the White House has nothing to suggest to the FBI.
That’s great. It also sets up a great inner conflict: How does Felt investigate leaks that he himself is causing—and that others are beginning to suspect him of—while protecting his men? While not accusing the innocent? The movie doesn’t really have an answer. At one point, doesn’t he let a subordinate twist in the wind? Then doesn’t he clear him? Kinda sorta? It’s never as straightforward as you’d want. It's as if half the movie is on deep background.
Here’s a clearer answer from the book the movie is based on:
On one report prepared by his team, Felt dramatically circled a paragraph stating that [assistant U.S. attorney Donald E.] Campbell had been approached by Woodward before a leak but denied giving any comment. Felt wrote boldly capital letters, “LAST PAGE OF ATTACHED MEMO—HERE IS ENTIRE ANSWER.” That was not the only time Felt tried to deflect attention from the FBI to other potential leakers.
That’s some nasty business. But so what, right? Campbell was probably one of those Nixon cronies. He probably got what he deserved. Except Campbell turned out to be one of the prosecutors who helped break James McCord (in January ’73), which helped break the Watergate case wide open.
We also get way too many dull subplots. Felt’s daughter has left home, (like in the Beatles song), and the Weather Underground is blowing things up (like in that other Beatles’ song). Are the two related? Does Felt think they are? Does he let the personal get in the way of the professional in pursuing the WU? The movie implies it. And what’s up with his wife? The movie opens with the two of them generically happy, but before long she’s blaming the FBI for ruining her life, and he’s blaming her for ruining their daughter.
Throughout, Felt never loses Neeson’s Irish accent, just as L. Patrick Gray, who is Irish, never loses Csonka’s Eastern European one. It’s like a battle over who is the least likely American.
What the puzzle is supposed to look like
What a mess. Writer-director Peter Landesman, a former New Yorker reporter, directed the underrated “Parkland,” about the JFK assassination, as well as the disappointing “Concussion,” about the collision of science and football starring Will Smith. This is his worst. By far.
This is what it should’ve been. Felt is a man who, in order to save the FBI (from the Nixon administration), betrays the FBI (by leaking its secrets). And he’s successful. He helps reporters connect the dots and bring down a president. Except in saving the FBI (by bringing down Nixon), Felt exposes the FBI (to the Church committee). Its secrets are revealed, too. Its image is tarnished. And he gets caught up in this. He’s indicted before a Grand Jury for violating the civil rights of Americans in pursuit of the Weather Underground. He loses by winning.
A movie that connected those dots would be worth seeing.
Movie Review: The Post (2017)
During the movie’s rollout, The New York Times kept saying that they broke the Pentagon Papers story, not the Washington Post, so the movie should be called “The Times” not “The Post.”
Except the movie isn’t about that. It’s about this:
- The struggle to make the Post a national newspaper.
- The struggle for Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to find her voice.
These things coincide, according to the movie, with the risks the Post took in publishing the Pentagon Papers.
The movie gives full credit to Neil Sheehan and the Times for breaking that story. Hell, the Times is not just present here but omnipresent. It’s the big brother whose shadow you can’t overcome. To Ben Bradlee, it’s as much an enemy as the Nixon White House. More so, in some sense.
That’s actually one thing that I loved about it. While lionizing liberal icons Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who are in the midst of a battle with a corrupt Republican administration, the movie lays bear the lie of “the liberal media.” True journalists like Bradlee don’t have political agendas; they have professional ones. Their goal is to beat the other guy to the story.
This isn't a Hollywoodization, by the way. In Bradlee’s memoir, “A Good Life,” from 1995, he writes about the moment the Nixon Justice Dept. got an injunction to keep the Times from publishing more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers—restraining an American newspaper in this manner, he writes, “for the first time in the history of the republic.” Dark days. Was he frustrated? Angry? Nope. More like relieved and energized. “At least the New York Times had been silenced,” he writes, “never mind how.”
Never mind how?
That stunned me when I first read it. But Bradley’s agenda isn't political but professional—ruthlessly so. Same with today’s Post and Times and Wall Street Journal. As opposed to, say, Fox News, where the agenda is wholly political. And completely unprofessional.
Zero to 60
That said, I was a little disappointed with “The Post.” It should totally be in my wheelhouse—a historical procedural about historic journalism that’s smart, true, and cares about the details—but I never felt engaged. There was always distance. The movie started on the wrong track and never quite righted itself.
I wouldn’t have begun in 1966 in Vietnam. Or if I did, I would’ve worked in that Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) wasn’t just an intellectual; he had been a first lieutenant in the Marines in the 1950s. I did like the dynamic on McNamara’s plane. Ellsberg is called back to give his assessment, says the war isn’t improving, and Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), rather than discount him, agrees. Angrily agrees. Yet on the tarmac, before the press, he still gives LBJ’s and the Pentagon’s upbeat assessment. That helps sour Ellsberg, which helps explain his later decision to leak the Pentagon Papers.
Here’s something the movie doesn’t wonder over that both Bradlee and Graham, in their respective memoirs, do. From Graham’s “Personal History”:
It’s hard to understand why Nixon and his people were so upset by the publication of these Papers, which were essentially a history of decisions made before they were in power. Nothing in them was a reflection on Nixon. I believe the administration’s reaction was an example of its extreme paranoia about national security and secrecy in general.
Overall, the journalistic side of the story ain’t bad. I like Bradlee wondering what Neil Sheehan is up to—“Haven’t seen his byline in a while”—and the amateur spy games to try to suss it out. I like everyone reading the Times the day the story breaks. It’s assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who tags Ellsberg as the leak, and who contacts him from the usual public pay phones, and who travels to Boston to get a copy. The sorting of the papers in Bradlee’s living room is good—with the daughter selling lemonade outside—but does it have the zip it should? I associate Bradlee with energy, with that ballsy, freewheelingness of WWII vets who moved through life as if stunned they were still alive and decided to make the most of it. The movie doesn’t have that verve. Bradlee and Graham were the upstarts, the unknowns, trying to prove something at ages 49 and 53 respectively, and director Steven Spielberg cast the grand dames of American cinema, Hanks and Streep, ages 61 and 68 respectively, and maybe that was a mistake. There needed to be a greater hunger there.
The second half of the story is Graham’s, who is often the only woman in a room full of accountants and lawyers, and who, according to the film, is virtually mute at the start. She’s smart, a good study, but can’t perform. Then she finds her voice.
The pivotal moment occurs after the reporters do their work and the Post’s lawyers warn about publishing it. From Graham’s memoir:
I was extremely torn by Fritz’s saying that he wouldn’t publish. I knew him so well, and we had never differed on any important issue; and, after all, he was the lawyer, not I. But I also heard how he said it: he didn’t hammer at me, he didn’t stress the issues related to going public, and he didn’t say the obvious thing—that I would be risking the whole company on this decision. He simply said he guessed he wouldn’t. I felt that, despite his stated opinion, he had somehow left the door open for me to decide on a different course. Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, “Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” And I hung up.
The movie, to its credit, captures all of this—particularly the silent interaction between her and Fritz Beebe, a legend at the Post, played by playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”). It’s nearly the same role he plays in “Lady Bird,” isn’t it? The wise, patient man next to the leading lady. Just as Bradley Whitford (“Get Out”) gets to play another asshole.
Anyway, it’s a great moment, and Streep nails it. Graham’s arc is the arc of the film—from figurehead to actor—but it feels overdone. It’s too obvious what she’s lacking, and then, boom, all of a sudden she gets it. How nice. And this is even before Spielberg—forever underlining points—films Graham, after the SCOTUS decision, making her way through the crowd, which suddenly turns into only admiring women. I don't buy it—the trajectory. Pretending she only found it at the 11th hour does a disservice to her and to the movie.
27 for 30
“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s 30th feature film and I’ve seen 27 of them. He and I have spent a lot of time together in the dark. Here's a question: As he’s aged, as his future has receded and his past has grown, have his futuristic sci-fi movies become more dystopian (the idealism of “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” giving way to “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One”), while the historical movies have become more nostalgic?
The nostalgia is certainly thick in this one. I learned more about how newspapers were printed than ever before—and I'm the son of a newspaper man. And those newspapers were read—from beginning to end. People didn’t just see a headline, or a tweet or a meme, and share it. Those were the days.
I’m with him. I just find it ironic that Spielberg, the former wunderkind, has such love for what no longer is—for what’s been replaced by the very thing that used to make his eyes light up: the whiz-bang of it all.