Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ is beautifully constructed cinematic garment

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Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis star in “Phantom Thread.”

Warning; May contain some spoilers

The world of fashion is, by its very nature, a thing of beauty and elegance, which also perfectly describes “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterpiece.

Set in the world of 1950s London haute couture, the film revolves around Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, a celebrated designer with a high society clientele. He is as fastidious about his appearance as he is about the exquisite gowns he shows in the rooms of his five-story residence/workshop.

Reynolds is the master of his domain. The team of seamstresses, all clad in white coats, defer to him and the whole operation is run with cool, tight-lipped, regimented efficiency by his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville. The entire operation is staged to coddle the brooding genius, it seems.

One morning at breakfast, his current paramour, Johanna, offers him an iced bun, which, of course, it simply unacceptable. It is not routine, and he loses his appetite, ruining his entire day. Later, Cyril says she will talk to the girl and, voila, she is seen no more.

Phantom_Thread_Poster-1Exhausted after a show, Reynolds drives down to the coast arriving in time for breakfast at a hotel. He spies the seemingly awkward waitress Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. His order is extremely specific: “Welsh rabbit with a poached egg; bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam (not strawberry); a pot of Lapsang souchong — and some sausages.” Then he asks her if she would have dinner with him. Such is the meet-cute of this unconventional romance.

Reynolds takes Alma back to his cottage where he makes her a dress. Despite Reynolds’ all-business demeanor, there is an erotic undercurrent to the scene as he measures her and gently calls out the numbers for Cyril, who has just arrived, to write down. Alma and Cyril eye each other warily, and Alma blushes as though she has been caught in some intimate moment.

Alma travels back to London and becomes Woodcock’s muse and model. However, the pair are rarely alone. Reynolds and Cyril breakfast together daily in near silence as he obsessively draws in his notebook. The film’s third breakfast is comical, as Alma disturbs the morning’s peace by, of all things, spreading marmalade on her toast. The sounds of knife, plate and toast are amplified as we see Woodcock wince at the disruption.

But Alma does not go the way of Johanna. She is made of sterner stuff.

For much of “Phantom Thread,” it seems to be a typical example of “Toxic Masculinity” with a dominating genius who expects everyone to bow to his whims. But who really has the power in the house? And to what lengths will Alma go to keep the relationship?

Reynolds, for all his dominance, is defined by the women in his life. He himself is dominated by the ghostly memory of his mother. As a child he designed the dress for the her second marriage with help from Cyril, and he has a lock of her hair sewn into his jacket.

He tells Alma, “You can sew almost anything into the canvas of a coat. When I was a boy I started to hide things in the linings of the garments, things that only I knew were there, secrets.” The film deals very much with secret thoughts.

For all its seriousness, “Phantom Thread” is also quite funny. The dialogue is crisp and there are moments of banter between characters that are both witty and caustic.

This film is a slow burn in the best possible way, with Anderson constructing it with the same delicate precision that Reynolds constructs his dresses. As well as directing and writing, Anderson also worked closely with the cinematographers when his usual crew was unavailable, and the film is visually stunning.

Day-Lewis is magnificent. He is as far from his previous Oscar winning roles — Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” the eponymous president in “Lincoln,” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” — as it is possible to get, yet he smolders and broods with tight-lipped, dapper restraint. Nobody can say more with a simple curl of the lip or a gently-arched eyebrow. If this, as he has said, is his last film, then he can be satisfied that he is leaving at the top of his game.

Kriep is given short shrift by not getting an Oscar nomination. The young actress from Luxembourg is wonderful as she shifts from innocent waitress to wife and muse. It takes some doing to wrestle attention from such a legend as Day-Lewis, but she is every bit his equal. Look for good things from her in the future.

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Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread”

Manville is up for best supporting actor and it is well-deserved. A stalwart of English film it is good to see her getting wider acclaim. As Woodcock’s older sister she knows exactly when to assert herself, leaving him looking like a scolded child.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is stunningly beautiful. It is perfectly paced for the film and one could listen to it all day.

“Phantom Thread” has perfectly captured the essence of the creative process from Reynolds’ detached intensity as a collection comes together to the sullen deflation once it is completed. It is a cycle familiar to many of us in the arts.

The hardest thing about writing reviews is avoiding spoilers when, especially in the case of this film, the only thing one wants to do is talk about “that moment,” or “what about?” and I look forward to more detailed conversations about this wonderful movie.

Like the secret messages Reynolds sews into his garments, “Phantom Thread” weaves an intricate story full of surprises.

Rated R.

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Review: ‘I, Tonya’ a tale of white trash, white ice

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Margot Robbie plays Tont=ya Harding in “I, Tonya.”

Warning: May contain spoilers.

The latest based-on-a-true-story movie to hit Beaumont’s screens is “I, Tonya,” the sordid tale of Olympic ice-skating gone bad.

Tonya Harding, wonderfully played by Margot Robbie, is not your typical waif-like, adorable teenager that one normally sees on the ice. She is muscular and athletic, with a somewhat abrasive personality.

The movie, based on interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, intersperses the action with confessional-type monologues. They offer insights into the characters’ motivations, with Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, cutting a particularly obnoxious figure reminiscent of a cold-blooded, chain-smoking pirate complete with a bird on a her shoulder.

I-TONYAposterIn another world, “I, Tonya,” would be an inspirational story. Poor girl lifts herself up through hard work and the sacrifices of a loving mother to become a champion. However, this ain’t that world and this ain’t that kind of movie.

LaVonda never misses a moment to remind Tonya of that sacrifice, often with a good backhander. Her “loving support” is abusive both physically and mentally. As a result, Tonya falls for the first person to show her any kind of affection, the gormless Gillooly, played with the required dimness by Sebastian Stan.

As Tonya rises through the ranks, she is repeatedly beaten — not in competition on the ice, but by Gillooly (one of those I-love-you-too-much scenarios), as well as her mother and the whole U.S. skating hierarchy.

In many ways, she is inspirational. She fights the authorities who think she doesn’t fit the right image (and skating, with its subjective scoring is ripe for bias), she makes her own outfits — she literally fights her way to the pinnacle of the sport.

In today’s world, she would not have the financial hardships. The Olympics allowed professional athletes to compete in 1986, and today an elite athlete would have a team of handlers to give them the best chance at a medal. Poor Tonya didn’t have that opportunity.

Ultimately, this is a tale of stupidity. Gillooly and Shawn Ekhardt, Gillooly’s friend and Tonya’s bodyguard, hatch a plan of “psychological warfare” to distract her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to Olympic qualifying, but things do not go as planned.

Ekhardt, wonderfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, is a complete idiot. A self-proclaimed counter-espionage expert, he is a cartoon character — amazingly, he actually is an idiot in real life, as anyone who saw the interviews at the time can attest. Hauser’s portrayal is marvelous, all sweat and self-delusion.

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Allison Janney plays Tonya Harding’s mother LaVona Golden in “I, Tonya.”

Director Craig Gillespie does a marvelous job keeping the story moving along, with an undercurrent of black humor, and the ice skating sequences are brilliantly done, with the camera swirling around Harding as she pulls off the triple axel. The look on her face as she lands and hears the cheers is priceless. For this one moment, at least, she is loved, and Robbie’s face is a picture of triumph.

Did Harding know about, what the characters all call, “the incident?” The film leans toward her not knowing about the initial plan, but she was complicit in the cover up.

At the time, Kerrigan was the portrayed as a victim and became more of America’s sweetheart, while Harding became the villain, and “I, Tonya” has been accused of trying to make audiences feel sorry for her.

But we should feel sorry for her in some ways. We see the “support system” she was surrounded with and it is hard to see how things could have turned out any other way.

Make no mistake, “I, Tonya” is a movie about class. She didn’t have the right image. She was not from the right sort of family. Therefore, she didn’t fit into the skating club. Instead of being heralded for her skill — and make no mistake, Harding was world-class — she was forced to fight every step of the way. Unfortunately, she lacked both the education and the guidance to make the right choices.

Harding is a tragic figure, a victim of her own poor choices to be sure, but tragic nonetheless.

“I, Tonya” is a black comedy populated thoroughly unlikeable characters, but it also has a heart. When the world encourages you to be a fighter, we can’t complain when it gets a little bloody. Harding is the villain the world wanted, unluckily for her, but lucky for us, it makes for a terrific film.

“I, Tonya” is rated R.

A piece of ‘Eye Candy’

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Artist Gina Marí Garcia in her tenant space at The Art Studio, Inc. as she works on pieces for her show, “Eye Candy,” Feb. 3-23, 2018. Photo by Andy Coughlan

This blog is aimed at my students. It offers a quick overview of the process and is an example of archiving my published work.

The best part of being the editor of ISSUE magazine is getting first choice of stories. I almost always take the artist profiles because I love talking to other artists. I always warn them that the interview will be more of a conversation than a straight Q&A.

My latest conversation is with Gina Marí Garcia, which ran in the February 2018 edition. There are important things to think about when doing an personality profile. The most important is to meet the person in their environment. Not only are they going to be more comfortable, but I can get a sense of how they live or work. The most important pieces of equipment for a journalist are the eyes and ears.

This story also gave me a chance to put a full package together, with a photo slide show and a short video all embedded in the online story. Today’s journalist must be able to do it all. The video was shot on my iPhone and edited in Adobe Premier.

Collecting art, collecting stories

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My Abby McLauren painting, foreground, is part of the “Beaumont Collects 2” exhibit t the Dishman Art Museum.

The Dishman Art Museum on the Lamar University campus hosted a pair of shows, Jan. 19 through March 2. I wrote about them for ISSUE magazine.

One of the shows, “Beaumont Collects,” features work by Southeast Texas collectors. My partner, Ramona, and I were honored to have three pieces featured in the show. Two were from our shared collection, a piece by my friend George Wentz and another by former Art Studio tenant Abbie McLaurin, both acquired through our friendships as fellow artists.

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Ramona Young poses with Jerry Newman’s drawing of her from the 1973 State Fair of Texas.

Ramona’s piece by renowned Southeast Texas artist Jerry Newman has the best story. Newman was Regents Professor of art and Professor Emeritus at Lamar University where he taught for 42 years and has a list of awards too long to list.

But this particular piece is a small drawing of Ramona from when she was a child. It was drawn at the South Texas State Fair where Newman has a booth in the early 1970s. Looking back at the man’s career and seeing the accolades, it is fascinating to think of him whipping out $5 drawings for passersby.

The drawing keeps adding to its story. We told Newman’s widow, Pattee, the story of the piece and she regaled us with anecdotes of him at the fair, how they got together (the fair features in that story, too), and their life together. The piece led us to a friendship and a new chapter in the work’s journey.

Collecting art is about the relationship one has to the piece. Our ownership is just part of the artwork’s story. Once the art is released by the artist into the world it goes its own way. Being part of the story is part of the joy of collecting.

Review: ‘The Shape of Water’ is ‘must-sea’ romantic thriller

Warning: This review may contain spoilers

Can one really call a film a classic love story when the romance involves a mute orphan and a sea creature? Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” makes the case in favor in magnificent style.

Set in Cold War-era 1962, the movie is a sumptuous visual affair with elements of old Hollywood romances, musicals and B-movie horror films, all woven together with a fairytale whimsy. From the opening aquatic dream-like credits to the closing scene, Del Toro delivers a world on the periphery of reality.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute orphan — a princess without a voice, as the narration tells us — who works as a cleaner at the Occam research lab, a quasi-government research facility, with her Zelda Fuller, played by Octavia Spencer. Elisa is a creature of routine — she boils eggs every morning, masturbating in the bath during the eight minutes it takes for the timer to go off, delivers breakfast to her friend and neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, before arriving at work with barely a minute to spare as Zelda holds her place in the clock-in line.

One day her routine is interrupted as a new “asset” is delivered to the lab where she is cleaning. Elisa looks through the glass of the container and we get to see the first glimpse of the creature. Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, is in charge of the asset. Shannon is brutally sadistic, wielding his power over the creature with a cattle prod, which he dubs the “Alabama howdee-do.

As time passes, Elisa forms a connection with the amphibious creature, when she finds out that the government plans to vivisect the creature, over the objections of scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstatler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Elisa makes a plan to save him.

Creature actor Doug Jones plays the amphibious man with a real pathos and charm. The actor, who played Abe Sapien in Del Toro’s “Hellboy” films, conveys much through his physicality. Of course, CGI is involved, but there is much to be done by the actor in the suit and the audience is given a character we can believe in.

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Michael Stuhlbarg, left, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in “The Shape of Water.”

From here on, the film shifts to a noir thriller. Can Elisa save the creature? Will Strickland catch on? The film moves on apace, with just the right amount of tension.

This is a marvelous film that showcases the best of Del Toro’s imagination. The Mexican director’s 2006 masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” transported viewers to a completely different world. “The Shape of Water” transports us to a fantasy world that is slightly askew from reality, yet is fully accessible. Its inhabitants are outsiders in this outside world. Elisa is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is black — all, like the creature — marginalized, seen as “less than.”

The film is resplendent with superb performances. Hawkins tells her story wordlessly, using her body with a fluid musicality. The way she holds her fingers and hands is balletic, and there is a strong element of old Hollywood musicals, which she watches with her best friend Giles. Yet her slim frailty belies a steely resolve, and she is a true feminist heroine. In any other year, she would be the frontrunner for an Oscar, but Francis McDormand’s “Three Billboards” performance seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut.

Like Elisa, Jenkins’ Giles is a character out of time. He even says that he feels as though he was born too late or too early. Being an older gay man in 1962 is to be isolated and alone. Jenkins, as usual, brings nuance and pathos to the part and is a serious contender in the supporting actor category. Octavia Spencer seems to have cornered the market on the slightly sassy minority best friend, and she is always entertaining.

Shannon’s Strickland is a caricature villain, but that is not a criticism. Nobody does brooding menace like Shannon, and he adds that extra spark to what, in lesser hands, could be a simple two-dimensional baddie. Stahlberg’s Hoffstatler is more than he seems and brings a sterling performance to the proceedings.

Elisa and Giles watch the black and white TV and dream of the Hollywood musicals — there is a nice fantasy dance sequence — and “The Shape of Water” evokes the dreamy love stories of the 1930s, when the world was simple and a boy and a girl could fall in love despite everything. Of course, in this case, the boy is a fish-man, but the principle is the same.

Del Toro’s screenplay, with Vanessa Taylor, draws on “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “King Kong” and “Beauty and the Beast,” among others, for its inspiration, but gives it a thoroughly modern twist.

“The Shape of Water,” more than anything, is a work of art. The color palette is beautiful with a swath of greens and blues that evokes the dampness of water and also a seedy, decrepitude to the city. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography evokes both a comic book and a film noir — everything is wet and dark, with the real light coming from the inner spark of the central romance.

Guillermo Del Toro has picked up every directing award this season and it would be no surprise if an Oscar is next. This is definitely a director’s film and his vision is on every frame. It is a noir sci-fi classic with all the heart of a sweet romance.

This valentine to B-movies is definitely on the A-list.

Rated R (for language and, presumably, interspecies sex).

The Day I Rejected ‘Man Hands’

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A Beefeater at the Tower of London regales tourists with tales of death and bloodshed from British history. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When I was young, probably around six or seven, my parents took me to the Tower of London for the day. I don’t remember much about the building, although I am sure I was impressed by the history (I was a bit of a nerd even then). What I remember most was meeting a Beefeater, the nickname for the Tower’s guards.

At the time, my father worked in a garage, fixing cars in all weathers. As a result, I remember his hands being cracked and calloused, the folds on his finger joints forming hard ridges like mini canyon walls. To my young self, this was what a man’s hands felt like and that was what my hands would eventually be like. No judgment, no worries — that’s just part of growing up.

The Beefeaters are all older men (and now women), who are retired military of a certain rank. Once they were the Tower’s defense, but are now the docents and tour guides. Near the end of the day, my father whipped out his camera — some sort of Instamatic, I presume — and asked one of the Beefeaters if he would pose for a photo with me and my sister. I ran toward the old man (I have never been the retiring type) and he held out his hand. We stood and faced my father as he focused his camera, but I was oblivious to the image.

My hand was engulfed the Beefeater’s giant paw, and I was completely confused. Here was a grown man, many years older than my father, but he didn’t have “man hands.” These hands were soft. Not just soft, but doughy and warm. Where were the ridges? Where were the sandpapery patches?

In my memory, I stood there for ages, fascinated by these giant soft hands. I think it was at that moment that I knew that I wanted to have a job that didn’t crack my hands up, that didn’t require creams and lotions just to stop the pain. And I appreciated my father’s work, while at the same time knowing I didn’t want any part of it (which, I realize smacks of snobbishness, but I am just not cut out for physical labor).

My father eventually moved into sales, and the ridges on his hands disappeared, although they were never quite as soft as the Beefeater’s.

I focused on a career in the arts, whining every time my dad tried to teach me something about cars (although if I had known I would spend most of my life in America I might have listened) or, worse still, required me to work in the garden for my allowance. During my career, I always wore gloves before I touched anything sharp or chemical or dirty.

When I moved to America in the early 1980s, the immigration officer who booked me through commented on my “immaculate” fingerprints with hardly a blemish. I thought to myself, “Damn right.”

(Note: apparently the picture still exists but my mother can’t find it. I hope she finds it one day)

Review: ‘The Post’ is a nostalgic love story

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Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts and Tom Hanks star in “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg

I am a sucker for a good love story, but not the sappy boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-end-up-together type of love story. I mean the boy-finds-government-secrets, boy-gets-government-secrets-to-the-press, press-saves-democracy type.

Make no mistake, “The Post” is a love story. Steven Spielberg’s latest film is clearly written to remind us all that despite cries of “fake news” and continual sniping from the Oval Office, a free press is one of the cornerstones of democracy.

“The Post” begins in 1966 Vietnam as we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who is with the Rand Corporation, embedded with American soldiers in order to compile a report for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (an excellent Bruce Greenwood) on how the war is going. Newsflash, not well, a fact the government chooses not to share with the public.

Forward five years and we see Ellsberg copying the top secret government report, setting the story in motion. It was, in fact, The New York Times that first published excerpts from what came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.” At that time The Washington Post was considered a family-owned local paper. When the government files an injunction to prevent The Times from publishing any more stories, The Post’s bulldog editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes The Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to publish in defiance of the Nixon White House.

postposterWith the newspaper about to go public the question becomes, as Bradlee says, “What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?”

We need to take a detour here and address the elephant in the room — “All the President’s Men,” widely considered to be the best film about journalism, which revolves around The Post’s coverage of Watergate and contributed to bringing down the Nixon administration. It is fair to make the comparison, and it would be fun to watch the two films back-to-back. Where “All the President’s Men” plays out as a much slower paced procedural, “The Post” is more frenetic, full of obligatory shots of crowded newsrooms with people chasing around and talking over each other, typewriters clacking away in the background.

For those of us who worked in newspapers 20 years ago or more, there is a glorious nostalgia to “The Post,” as if that chaos made the journalism better (actually, good reporting is good reporting, and we are in the middle of a golden age of journalism despite what Tweets you may read). However, computers have cut down the number of people in the room and the noise level has dropped. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be (although no one I know would really go back to the days of cut and paste, and running from typewriter to typesetter with a hundred steps in-between).

The main crossover between the two films is Bradlee, and Hanks does a good job, but suffers in comparison to Jason Robards‘ Oscar-winning role in “President’s Men.” Is it fair to compare the two? Probably not, and I would be interested to hear from people who have not seen the Robards performance. Having said that, Hanks does a fine job in a typical Hanks way. The actor has carved a mighty impressive career playing a version of the ordinary man fighting for what is right. I read somewhere that he is the Jimmy Stewart for our age and that’s an apt description.

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This film seems to have every great working actor in America in supporting roles, including Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Allison Brie, and the wonderful Bob Odenkirk, as Ben Bagdikian. It almost becomes a distraction as one face after another pops up. I guess when Spielberg says, “Hey, wanna be in my movie?” any actor worth his salt would jump.

postgrahamBut this is as much Kay Graham’s story as Bradlee’s. Full disclosure, Graham is one of my heroes. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “Personal History,” is a must read for anyone who is interested in journalism, 20th-century politics, history, women’s issues, or just anyone who likes to read brilliantly-written books about inspiring people.

Graham grew up with the family paper, but when her father died he handed control over to her husband, Phil, because that was how it worked back then. Of course a woman couldn’t run a business. Streep’s Graham, in a moment with her daughter, acknowledges that it didn’t occur to her to break the system. However, when her husband died, Graham took over, although the film suggests her primary role was to host and attend parties, and do the womanly thing. There is even a scene where she is hosting various high-powered couples for a dinner party, but as soon as the topic turns to politics the women, Kay included, know it is time to leave the room and let the men talk about serious things.

“The Post” has a strong feminist message not so hidden in the narrative. At first, Graham is talked over in board meeting as Arthur Parsons (a wonderfully condescending Bradley Whitford) claims to look out for the company’s interest as they are about to launch the IPO. He is not a newspaper man, he’s a businessman. But as the narrative progresses, Graham, urged on by Bradlee, asserts herself. There is a wonderful small scene where Bradlee is a little too cocksure about his bravery at facing up to the government before Paulson, as Bradlee’s wife Tony, reminds him who is really brave. He is only risking losing his job. Graham is risking her company, her fortune — her entire way of life.

Streep does a great job, of course, and she is at her best in those wordless moments when we see her struggle with the decision.

As in the movie “Lincoln,” Spielberg has the ability to take what we know actually happened (will the Emancipation Act pass?) yet still build suspense. We know how this all turned out, yet there is still genuine tension as we wait for the Supreme Court ruling.

There are always a few moments in a Spielberg movie where he can’t resist turning it up a little too far to make sure we get the point. The scene in the court between Graham and the government’s young female intern is a little much, but that’s just being pedantic.

This is a film for history buffs and lovers of journalism. There are several moments that had me beaming because it is beautiful to watch people doing their jobs well. My favorite moment in the film sees Bagdikian at his typewriter. As the presses start to run, the whole building shakes and he gives small smile before getting back to work.

“The Post” clearly has resonance today. We are inundated with information but it still comes down to someone, somewhere, on whatever platform, deciding to do the legwork to uncover a truth, to hold someone accountable. It’s why freedom of the press is in the first amendment — the first. That’s what freedom is.

And that’s what makes “The Post” a love story.

In addition to “Personal History,” read Bradlee’s autobiography, “A Good Life.”