Published on: January 5, 2018
It was incredibly cold during my holiday week off, which meant that I saw even more movies than I’d ordinarily see. The good news is that I chose well - I’d recommend all of them to varying degrees and for different reasons.
• I’m not surprised that I loved The Post
- it is a terrific newspaper movie, and I like few things more than newspaper movies. The Steven Spielberg-directed film is about the first time the Washington Post
went to war with the Nixon administration, over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret documents that unveiled the travesty and futility of of US involvement in the war in Vietnam, and the degree to which successive administrations had lied to the general public.
The irony of The Post
is it actually was the New York Times
that first published the papers, until they were stopped by doing so by a federal court injunction. That’s when the Post
- to that point a poor step-sister to the Times
but being run by an ambitious Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) - managed to obtain the papers and started publishing them in the full knowledge that management and ownership could be jailed.
What makes The Post
different from many newspaper movies is that the spine of the movie concerns Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep), who was running the paper - but was insecure about her talents and position - after the suicide of her husband. The Post
was in the process of going public, and so a lot was at stake when the newspaper essentially thumbed its nose at the Nixon administration and made the First Amendment and the public’s right to know a priority. As much as anything, The Post
is the story of Katharine Graham’s coming of age, and it sets up the emergence of the Washington Post
as a national force … which mattered shortly thereafter, when the paper assigned two metro reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to cover a break-in at the Watergate office complex.
While less so than All The President’s Men
, The Post
also is a strong procedural, with excellent supporting cast performances; special kudos to Bob Odenkirk and Sarah Paulson.
I’m going to be honest here. People like Graham and Bradlee are my heroes, and I would heartily recommend their memoirs to anyone. And for me, The Post
is a movie about a particular - and invaluable - form of American heroism and integrity that remain enormously important today. The Post
is about the importance of doing the right thing, just because it is the right thing.
• Molly’s Game
is the first time that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has directed one of his own screenplays, and he brings to it enormous energy and verve that belies the fact that this is his rookie directorial effort.
It helps that he has a fascinating - and true - story with which to work. Molly Bloom was an Olympic-level skier who, through a variety of circumstances, ended up running an exclusive high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles and then New York. Jessica Chastain is absolutely compelling in the title role, alternately gritty and desperate … and because she is in a Sorkin screenplay, she has a fast, ironic mouth and is smarter than most of the other people in the room, even after she’s arrested by the FBI. Idris Elba plays her attorney, and matches her smart word for smart word, and Kevin Costner is effective in a small but important role as her father.
To me, Sorkin’s work - A Few Good Men
, “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom,” Moneyball
, and Charlie Wilson’s War
, to name a few - is great because it is utterly and transparently literate. Even the bad guys tend to talk in a way that we all wish we could, and so the movies and television shows transcend reality while offering a fascinating window on interesting people. Molly’s Game
is, for my money, about as good as he gets.
• When I heard they were making a movie about Tonya Harding - the Olympic figure skater who was implicated in an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan - I couldn’t imagine why. It ends up that I, Tonya
is a very good movie - a black comedy showing us that her story is far m ore complicated than anyone knew. I, Tonya
is structured as a bio, using interviews with the various participants, and director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers don’t just keep it moving, but keep us surprised and shocked at pretty much every turn.
Margo Robbie is fearless in her performance as Harding, and Allison Janney is ferocious as her mother, never looking for sympathy as she pushes her daughter forward without regard for her mental or physical health. I, Tonya
is about the price and cost of excellence, but it shows that there are no easy answers. And, in its own way, it shows the culture’s two-decades long decent into as reality TV show culture from which we are unlikely to emerge unscathed.
• The Shape of Water
is a very interesting movie - not the best-thing-since-sliced-bread movie that some critics called it when it first came out, but a kind of 21st century take on a 1950’s monster movie with a Beauty-and-the-Beast twist. If that sounds like a mouthful, it is, but Shape
is a beautiful movie to look at that creates its own universe, with terrific performances by Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones and Richard Jenkins. I thought Michael Shannon was a little over the top as the government agent who is all paranoia, suspicion and we-are-right-because-we-are-Americans, but the movie remains a worth-seeing piece of work by director Guillermo del Toro.
• If newspaper movies is one of my favorite genres, westerns probably come next … and Hostiles
, written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart
), is a terrific modern example of the form.Hostiles
takes place in 1892, as a burned out Army captain, who has spent years fighting Indians, is ordered to return a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family from New Mexico to their Montana tribal lands.
The story is one of discovery, as the Army soldiers and the Cheyenne find a common enemy in the Sioux; the soldiers find themselves caring for an emotionally damaged widow whose husband and children have been slaughtered; and escorting a soldier-turned-criminal to an Army prison. The captain - played by Christian Bale in a terrifically modulated performance - seems to be encountering new and unfamiliar emotions as they make their way slowly across the plains, and I found myself completely caught up in his experiences. The supporting turns by Rosamund Pike (as the widow), Wes Studi (as the chief), Ben Foster (as the criminal) and Rory Cochrane (as a soldier even more burned out than Bale’s character) is uniformly excellent.
The thing about 21st century westerns is that they see the past through the prism of the present, and Hostiles
is an excellent example of how to make it work, in that it is all about seeing enemies through newly opened eyes, and being willing to open oneself to the possibility that the world is not as we’ve always assumed. Hostiles
may take place in 1892, but it is very much a 21st century piece of work.
• Finally, there is The Greatest Show
, the original musical about PT Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman. This was my least favorite of all the movies I saw over the holidays, mostly because it just didn’t gel for me. The audience seemed to like it, though, and I admire what they were trying to achieve, so I wouldn’t recommend against it. I just think that it was trying too hard to please … though that isn’t the worst thing one can say about a movie.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.