Review: ‘The Post’ is a nostalgic love story

the-post-2

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.

post

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.”

Advertisements

Review: ‘Disaster Artist’ finds heart in tale of ineptitude

disaster-artist

Dave Franco, left, plays Greg Sestero and James Franco plays Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist.”

What if one has a dream and the means to make that dream a reality? Does it matter if the skills one might need are absent? Is the pursuit and realization of the dream all that matters?

That seems to be the central question of “The Disaster Artist.” The film centers on Tommy Wiseau, played by James Franco, and his quest to make his dream movie project, “The Room.” Based on the true story of the making of the so-called “worst film ever made,” “The Disaster Artist” is a surprisingly sweet film. What could easily have slipped into scornful parody retains a fondness and respect for Wiseau’s passion and irrational confidence in his abilities.

It should be noted that having seen “The Room” is not a requirement for enjoying “The Disaster Artist,” but watching a few clips and an interview with the real Wiseau wouldn’t hurt, if only to establish the validity of Franco’s insane verbal and physical performance.

The movie begins with aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) performing a stunningly uninspired scene from “Waiting for Godot” at acting class. As he slumps back to his seat, the teacher asks if anyone else wants to do something. Enter Wiseau, whose scene consists of a writhing, sprawling, barely coherent rendering of the “Stella” scene from “Streetcar Named Desire.” Apparently, this complete lack of abandon interests the nervous Greg and the pair form an unlikely friendship.

Tommy, who looks 20 years older, claims to be the same age as Greg. He professes to be from New Orleans, although his bizarre accent and garbled syntax seem more Eastern European. And he has money, but from where we never know.

The pair head out to Los Angeles to make it in the movies, but after continually being rebuffed Tommy decides to write his own script and make a movie.

The rest of “The Disaster Artist” is a movie about movie making — in pretty much every wrong way. Tommy hires experienced professionals but ignores most of their advice. As time passes, everyone except Tommy begins to realize what they have got themselves into.

The movie pulls no punches and Tommy’s narcissism, neediness and complete lack of social skills, including being abusive to his actress — because Alfred Hitchcock, Tommy says, was mean to his actress on “The Birds” and that was one of the best films ever made.

Tommy should be a thoroughly unlikable character, and there are times that we wonder why Greg is even friends with him, but Franco, who won a Golden Globe for his performance, does an effective job of bringing out the pathos. Here is a grown man who has child-like need to be loved. We see the desire, the work he is willing to put into the vision, and end up pulling for him. Of course, the film is going to suck. Everybody involved can see that, but at least he is trying.

There are parallels between “The Disaster Artist” and Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” creator of “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” another candidate for “the worst films ever made,” The latter is campier and more overtly funny, but both films find a nobility in the hero’s quest — no matter how preposterous it may seem.

“The Disaster Artist” features a gaggle of big names in small parts including Seth Rogan, Bob Odenkirk, Sharon Stone, Judd Apatow, Zac Ephron and Allison Brie, with a notable turn from Ari Graynor as the long-suffering Juliette/Lisa.

Directed by James Franco from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay of the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Sestero and Tom Bissell, the film is an hilarious, cringe-inducing, sweet and clever bromance about making things happen — for good or bad.

Rated R.

Review: Oldman gives Oscar-worthy turn as Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’

DARKEST HOUR

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”

I have lived in the United States for more than 35 years, well over half my life. I like to think I have assimilated well to the American lifestyle. Yet, for all that, there are moments when my Englishness rises to the fore.

Darkest Hour,” which is a terrific complement to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” is one such moment. The film stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and takes place over a three week period in 1940, when the Nazis were storming through Europe and Britain found itself facing the massed German forces without a European ally left standing and its friends across the Atlantic firmly committed to neutrality.

While I am no military historian, I love a good tale of political infighting and the machinations that take place behind the surface of history.

The film begins with the Germans on the march about to enter France and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), he of the “Peace for our time” speech, facing his political end. The Conservatives are the ruling party and Viscount Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane, Stannis Baratheon of “Game of Thrones” fame) is the heir apparent. Yet he declines the position knowing that the war is not going well and it is almost certainly a losing proposition. The opposition Labour party will support the government but only if the unpopular Winston Churchill, who had been sounding the warning call about Hitler for years, is in charge.

Nowadays, it seems obvious that Churchill, one of history’s great statesman, would become PM, yet he was not popular with his party, viewed as a liberal and the architect of one on World War I’s greatest defeats at Gallipoli. He was a drinker with no social filter, and reckless to boot.

(It should be noted here that enjoying the film does not require an intimate knowledge of British parliamentary procedure or early 20th century policy, but it does add nuance).

Darkest-Hour-posterHow will Churchill fight off the challenge from his own party? Will he gain respect from the king, whose brother he supported during the abdication scandal? (Side note, if Edward VIII had not abdicated Britain would almost certainly have been German by now — look it up).

The setting and cinematography are beautiful, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Joe Wright’s direction is crisp and precise, keeping the pace up in what is essentially a story set in small, cramped rooms, but make no mistake, this movie belongs to Gary Oldman.

He has always been one of those actors that can be counted on to be brilliant, even if the project is suspect (Yes, I’m looking at you “Air Force One). From his breakthroughs in “Sid and Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” through “JFK,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The Fifth Element,” to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and Jim Gordon in the Batman trilogy, Oldman is always interesting. Here is the performance that may finally bring him an Oscar, not least because the Academy loves a physical transformation and Oldman truly inhabits Churchill’s bloated physique with his jowly, rolling speech, and avoids the tendency to caricature which has afflicted many before him.

Oldman’s Churchill is flawed but human and more importantly, full of fire and passion, determined to stand and fight for what he believes in — the strength and integrity of Britain. Beyond the physical, Oldman’s eyes sparkle as Churchill’s mind works hard to resist the appeasers in his war cabinet and gather the support he needs to fight on.

There are many set pieces that allow us to share in Churchill’s journey. One particularly touching moment with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) allows us to see the inner resolve of both men.

Sure, I don’t expect everyone to weep when they see the civilian armada heading to Dunkirk (yes, I did), and maybe the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech has a little more resonance for me, but in this day and age, surely we can all look at our world and ponder what makes us who we are? What is it that makes us English or American or whatever country we were born in?

It is our better selves, together, in the face of tyranny that must prevail. Churchill was voted out of office at the end of the war as the people looked to build the better society they had fought and sacrificed for, but he was not diminished for all that. In that moment, he was the right man for the job. Maybe it was his past failures that allowed him to be the inspirational figure that dominates English history.

“Darkest Hour” is as much a film for now as a period piece. As the old boy said, “Never surrender.”

“Darkest Hour” is rated PG-13

Who needs an editor (part 2)

milo

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King

In my last blog, I argued that the editor’s role is to help the writer present his work in a concise, insightful manner. But how much is the editor responsible for the book or article’s content?

Former Alt Right darling Milo Yiannopoulos, whose main claim to fame is spouting controversial, homophobic, mysogynistic, racist comments, is suing Simon & Schuster publishing house for canceling the contract for his book, “Dangerous,” following comments that suggested he condoned pedophilia. As result, the publishing house entered Yiannopoulos’ original manuscript, complete with editor’s comments, into the court record.

First of all, the comments are hilarious. Anyone who has read or heard Yiannopoulos expected the book to be narcissistic, snarky and full of insults with little factual basis. The manuscript, and the editor’s comments, seem to indicate exactly what one would expect.

Several online sources have published excerpts, a few of which can found found here and here. I am pleased to find that professional editors occasionally use comments I myself have made (including the marvelous, “Ugh!”).

However, there is blowback from some who argue that the editor is attempting to make Yiannopoulos’ views palatable instead of condemning the essential message. In this instance, of course the editor — Mitchell Ivers, who is VP and editorial director of Threshold, S&S’s conservative publications wing — is trying make the message commercial. He is employed by the company to produce an end product that will appeal to the widest possible audience and generate revenue.

However reprehensible the message, it is not the editor’s responsibility to determine the message, only to ensure it is delivered in the clearest way possible (whether Simon & Schuster should have signed Yiannopoulos in the first place is a separate debate).

While it is easy to argue against Yiannopoulos’ stream of nonsense, the same editing principle applies to all stories.

This semester, a female student submitted a column to the University Press that espoused her view that there was nothing wrong with traditional gender roles, that she expected a man to pay for her date, and that when she marries, she will be quite comfortable cooking, cleaning and raising kids while he supported the household.

The editorial staff this semester was all women, feminists at that, and one could almost hear the spit-takes from the office as I read the column out loud while editing. The student in question is well liked by the staff but they were shocked, to say the least, at what they considered her old-fashioned values.

The editing process consisted of a lot of questions such as, “Are you sure you want to say this?” and “Is this really what you mean?” She was good-natured about the whole thing, saying that while she believed in equal pay for equal work, she was quite comfortable with her position. She even liked the eventual headline, which reflected the reaction of the office, “What the Feminism?”

Several of the staff approached me after wondering if we should run it, as it may reflect badly on the paper. First, I pointed out, the column was clearly labeled as the opinion of the writer, and second, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the writing. She had an opinion, she expressed it clearly, and she backed it up. What, I asked, if they wanted to propose the opposite view? Should we not run it because it might offend someone?

My job was not to agree with her position. My job was to help her express it well. She was happy with the result and it certainly created a spirited dialogue around the office.

She has graduated now. I hope she finds a good job. Then I hope she finds a good husband. More importantly, I hope she learned a bit about good editing along the way.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” — Colette

Review: ‘Lady Bird’ resonates according to life experience

ladybird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf star in “Lady Bird”

Why do films resonate with some people and not with others? There are films — and books, music, etc. — that I hated when I was young but came to appreciate later. Life does that, it constantly shapes and re-shapes perception.

“Lady Bird” is that sort of film. Set in 2002, it follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who when asked her given name says “Lady Bird” to express her individuality “, as she navigates the final year of high school. She struggles to find focus in school work, reevaluates friendships, fights with her mother (the always wonderful Laurie Metcalf), and generally tries to figure out how one becomes an individual.

Having a daughter who was in high school at the same time, “Lady Bird” felt like a time machine as I watched variations of the same scenarios I had seen in real life. It is a small film, but one of the most delightful and honest films I have seen, a coming-of-age character study that gives its tight ensemble cast plenty to work with.

ladybirdposterRonan was Oscar nominated for “Brooklyn” two years ago, and is a front runner for another one this year. The actress has the uncanny ability to be perfectly natural. She moves through every emotion in the book without once seeming like she’s actually acting. I know, I know, that’s what good acting is, but how often does one see it done so well.

Metcalf is a shoo-in for a supporting acting nod as Marion, a nurse who struggles to keep the family going as her husband Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his job. When Lady Bird refers to them as living on the other side of the tracks, we see the hurt in Marion’s eyes. Marion’s constant picking at her daughter — about everything — fuels the strained relationship, yet, like everyone else in the film, she is just doing the best she can.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig, already an indie darling as an actress, has written a marvelous script where no one is the villain — each person is just trying to find their way.

Letts’ Larry is the supportive father trying to walk the tightrope between mother and daughter. Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) reflects the twists that come from long-time relationships among people who are growing in different ways.

While “Lady Bird” has moments of drama and conflict, it is also a sweet elegy to small-town teen-age America. There is no real climax to the film. Life goes on, maybe with everyone a little wiser, but who knows?

“Lady Bird” is good. Whether it is very good depends on who you are and how you relate. I liked it a lot. My daughter liked it well enough — “But then again, I lived it,” she said.

Told you it was real.

“Lady Bird” is rated R.

Who needs an editor? (part 1)

copyed.jpg

“Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

What is the role of an editor? The answer is both simple and complex.

Simply put, it is someone who checks copy for errors in grammar, punctuation, clarity, etc. More deeply, a good editor helps the writer present the information or ideas in a clear and concise manner.

Anyone who writes with the view to being understood, respected and, possibly, making a buck or two should appreciate the value of a good editor, despite what the writer’s ego may think.

As a fine arts writer, I am always convinced that my “final” draft is clear and insightful. Then I give it to someone to edit and, inevitably, one part is met with something like, “I’m not exactly sure what this part means.” Of course you don’t. I know what it means because I wrote it and I have education and training in the subject. But now I know I need to re-write it or add some background to make it clear to everyone. The editor has done exactly what I need her to do.

I am the advisor to the student newspaper at Lamar University, which means I edit a lot. I have the great fortune of being able to take my time (unless they miss deadline) with each student, and I see my editing sessions as an important part of their education as a writer. In the professional world, the editing is often done without the writer being present and they don’t see the changes until it is in print.

26230766_1413209602121671_3806575744536792743_nI would say that more than half of the process consists of me asking, “Why?” or “What does this mean?” or “Who said that?” or “What has this got to do with anything?”

(By the way, when editing I always read out loud, which the new students say they find embarrassing, yet they almost always hear the mistakes instantly, and maybe they need to be embarrassed — public humiliation can be a valuable learning tool).

My reputation, unfairly, is that I am intimidating. I think that just means I point out the errors in logic, or the gaps in information. Some of the younger students complain that I have butchered their stories, when in fact their storytelling is incomplete and needs more work. The point is that they should ask themselves the questions when writing, meaning  I have to ask fewer and fewer. Nothing makes me, and the student, happier than reading through, making a couple of minor suggestions (no story is perfect) and walking away with a “Good, Print it.”

The most important thing to remember about editing is that it is not my story, it is the writer’s story. My own compositions have a distinctive voice and I would not want the editor to change it. The editor is not there to co-opt the story, but to help the writer’s own voice be heard. The benefit my students get from face-to-face editing sessions is that they get to re-write in their own way, so it still sounds like them.

Of course, one must be one’s own editor, but even the best need a little help now and again.

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” — Don Roff

Next: How much is an editor responsible for content?

Review: ‘All the Money in the World’ buys suspense but not family

All The Money in the World

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in a publicity shot from “All the Money in the World.”

There is something a little disconcerting when one starts seeing a number of “period” films released based on actual events that one remembers clearly. It reminds me of the first time I heard an REM song on the oldies channel — “But that’s not old?!”

All the Money in the World” is set in 1973 and is a story I remember following with great interest at the time. Sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), grandson of the world’s richest man — in fact, as the movie tells us, oil baron J. Paul Getty was the richest man who had ever lived — was kidnapped from the streets of Rome and held for ransom.

Like any movie, director Ridley Scott’s invention stretches the truth of the story to keep the suspense moving at a pace that builds the intensity organically.

Of course, no mention of the film can ignore the pictures big pre-release story — Scott’s decision to re-shoot all the scenes with old man Getty, replacing Kevin Spacey in the wake of his sexual assault allegations with Christopher Plummer, at a cost that increased the budget by 25 percent. Technically, he has done a pretty seamless job, but he also lucked out — Plummer is superb.

moneygetty

Christopher Plummer plays J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World”

He struts around as if he owns the world, as the value of his stocks supercedes the value of his family. We see him holding court in his gloomy English mansion, surrounded by “things” — he has a need to possess, and that extends even to his family. His familial interactions are cynical manipulations rather than loving encounters. To concede an inch is a weakness in his quest for “more.”

Michelle Williams, underused in “The Greatest Showman,” gets a lot more to do here, as Paul’s mother, Gail Harris, desperately trying to raise the ransom money and bring her son home, and she is the solid core of the film’s humanity. When she divorces Getty’s drug-addled son, she is cut out the family and her pleas to her father-in-law for the ransom money fall on deaf ears, with Getty telling reporters, “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

The film follows three threads — Gail’s desperate search, aided by Getty’s CIA-trained operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), Getty’s loving attachment to his tickertape machine and his money, and the relationship between Paul and his kidnapper Cinquanta, played by Romain Duris.

The third strand plays out almost like Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. The original kidnappers seem to be amateurs who have no intention of hurting Paul, they are just out to make a buck, thinking it will all be over in a few days. As the months drag on, and Paul is sold on to a more ruthless gang, Cinquanta goes as well to try to protect him.

In real life, one of Paul’s captors was helpful. The film takes a few liberties with this character, but Cinquanta is our surrogate, incredulous that such a rich man would refuse to pay the ransom and pitying the poor little rich boy (the real events are listed in this Vanity Fair article).

The movie, written by David Scarpa from John Pearson’s 1995 book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty,” takes quite a few artistic licenses but the audience is rewarded with a fine thriller.

However, the film is more than a simple crime caper. The Bible poses the question, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “All the Money in the World” is an entertaining exploration of that concept.

(Note: the film is better than the Mark-Wahlberg-saves-the-world trailer would suggest)