The Post – Film review

“We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper,” growls Tom Hanks’ grizzled newspaper guy Ben Bradlee in this 70s-set thriller about the leaked Pentagon Papers. It’s a statement you can picture modern-day newspaper editors the world over muttering, arriving as this film does in an era when Donald Trump’s White House brands every unfavourable story as ‘fake news’. You get the sense that Steven Spielberg knows it, too. In fact, so keenly aware is he of The Post’s pertinence and prescience, his story often trips over its own self-importance, undermining an otherwise compelling, finely crafted film.

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For those unfamiliar, the Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page report on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The key finding within the damning documents claimed the US government knew they couldn’t win the war, yet continued to send troops into battle rather than admit an embarrassing defeat. Needless to say, officials were not keen for the report to be made public. So when the papers got their hands on them, the Nixon government issued a ban on publication, kicking-off a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Post focuses mostly on The Washington Post’s role in the eventual publication of the papers. Namely, the internal wrangling between Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) over whether to risk bankruptcy and possible prison by running the story or to suppress the findings and allow the government to get away with one of the greatest scandals in American political history.

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Hanks is magnetic as Bradlee, perfectly encapsulating the legendary editor’s swagger as he prowls through the newsroom, energised by the burr of breaking news and the clacking of typewriter keys. It’s an infatuation with old school journalism that’s clearly shared by Spielberg, who drools over the age-old practicalities of newspaper journalism, turning the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of operating a printing press into a beautifully soothing display of operatic craftsmanship. The director also brings plenty of visual panache to proceedings, using inventive angles and motifs to enliven otherwise drab scenes of journalists and businessmen debating in boardrooms, bedrooms and huddled over payphones.

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It’s Streep’s Graham who is the emotional fulcrum of the story, though. The United States’ first female newspaper publisher, Graham is initially lost in a male-dominated environment: walking unnoticed into boardrooms, spoken over in meetings, undermined by her colleagues when they think she’s out of earshot. Streep affectingly and compellingly portrays Graham’s struggle for respect, turning fumbling hand gestures into a steely grasp as she gradually finds her voice and takes charge of the decision over wether to publish the papers.

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If only Spielberg could resist the urge to over-egg the resonance of the film’s themes and ideals. All too often, potentially powerful moments are bludgeoned by cheap cinematic tricks that serve to detract rather than enhance the drama. One scene, which sees Graham striding out of court to meet a crowd of empowered, independent women, strives for poignancy but comes across as a hackneyed attempt to curry favour with Oscar voters.

Nevertheless, The Post is a timely reminder of the value of a free press – one that “serves the governed, not the governors” and warns those in charge that an abuse of power will not go unchecked. And that’s an important, moving and powerful message with which everyone can resonate. No tricks required.

Runtime: 116 mins (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars: Tom Hank, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys

 

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Darkest Hour – Film Review

Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Sir Winston Churchill, few castings have caused the turning of heads quite like Gary Oldman. A career spent lending his lean, sinewy frame to such rebellious outcasts as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald is hardly ideal preparation for playing the jowly, growly titan of British politics, after all. Yet what Oldman lacks in physique, he more than compensates with energy and physicality, superbly capturing the dogged determination of his often larger-than-life subject with greater nuance, depth and, yes, weight than ever before. If only Darkest Hour provided a similarly compelling film to match his absorbing performance.

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Scripted by A Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is focused on Churchill’s remarkable skills as an orator, pivoting around three crucial speeches he gave over a four-week period in 1940. With Hitler’s forces rampant and Western Europe on the brink, the newly-installed PM comes under pressure to strike a peace deal with the Nazi regime. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of a vicious dictator, Churchill resolves to fight on, placing him in opposition with the King, his political enemies and his own conscience.

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It’s striking to see how convincingly Oldman captures the eccentricity and blustering energy of the notoriously theatrical Churchill. Complimented by considerable, though not overbearing, prosthetics, Oldman’s Churchill barrels through the halls of Westminster, swivels on his heels at the despatch box, and barks orders to his amiable secretary (a spirited Lily James) while sloshing about in the tub or “sealed within the privy”. It’s no wonder many of Churchill’s peers considered him to be an embarrassing liability.

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His performance is no mere caricature, though, exploring Churchill’s fears and flaws with affecting subtlety and empathy. As the situation in Dunkirk becomes more desperate and his adversaries, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), try to steer him towards opening peace talks with Germany, Churchill becomes beset by doubt, plunging into a ‘black dog’ depression as he questions his thinking. Is the war already lost? Is he needlessly sending young men to die? Is his risking the lives of the British people by refusing to negotiate?

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So much of this plays out exactly as you’d expect – hushed meetings in gloomily-lit corridors, cigar-chomping ruminations over war maps, an unexpected arrival to rouse Churchill when all seems lost. And that’s the problem with Darkest Hour: it’s a decent story, engagingly told and with compelling performances, but it lacks an emotive spark to truly make an impact. While director Joe Wright imbues scenes with plenty of visual flair – one stunning motif sees Churchill frequently boxed in by inky-black darkness, everything hinges on Oldman’s powerhouse performance. The pace noticeably dips whenever he’s off screen.

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You sense Wright knows as much, which is why he wisely keeps the camera in lockstep with Churchill’s hustle, prowling alongside him as Oldman drives the drama forward through sheer force of will. It’s telling, then, that when looking for a climactic event, Wright chooses to avoid the more obviously cinematic evacuation of Dunkirk. Instead, he once again draws in on Oldman’s Churchill, stripping everything else away as he delivers a final, soaringly evocative speech to rouse not only his fellow politicians, but an entire nation of fight on in the face of terrible adversity. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill? Turns out they’re a perfect match.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx.)
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas

Molly’s Game – Film Review

In Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin may have found the Sorkiniest of material with which to make his directorial debut. Based on the eponymous memoir, the tale of Molly Bloom’s journey from wealthy poker hostess to the centre of an FBI money laundering investigation is a dense, dramatic, exceedingly talky affair that bristles with murky morals, corrupt officials, legal machinations and a sleazy tabloid media – all told through the glitzy prism of celebrity poker. It’s also Sorkin’s most progressive and surprisingly feminist piece work to date, celebrating the courageous resolve of one talented woman who repeatedly suffers at the hands of powerful men and keeps pulling herself back up.

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Jessica Chastain is Bloom, a former competitive skier who, following a devastating knee injury, heads to Los Angeles in search of a fresh start. There she winds up working for a Hollywood slimeball who puts her in charge of running his weekly celebrity poker game. Though wildly successful, Bloom quickly grows frustrated with the unbalanced power differential and decides to strike out on her own. Soon she’s running the hottest game in the world and living lavishly off the extravagant tips of her high-rolling clients, which include movie stars, athletes, business tycoons and members of the Russian mafia. And that’s when the FBI come calling…

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What unfolds is 140-minutes of slick, compulsively absorbing courtroom drama as Bloom battles the competing threats of the FBI, a public smear campaign and pressure from her own lawyer to spill the beans on her clients in order to avoid serving jail time. Working behind the camera for the first time, Sorkin keeps things simple, restricting the action to drab, windowless rooms that lock in the tension, allowing his snappy screenplay take centre stage. Every scene crackles with Sorkin’s familiar rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and rapid-fire dialogue, which more than compensate for the lack of visual panache.

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It also doesn’t hurt to have an actor as utterly compelling as Chastain in the lead role. While her co-stars perform effectively in entertaining, if largely one-note roles, Chastain is sensational as the resilient, beleaguered Bloom. Far from the trashy party-girl depicted in the tabloids, the movie reveals Bloom to be a richly complex character. She’s incredibly intelligent, hard-working and fiercely ambitious, having built a multi-million dollar business using little more than her wits; yet she’s also an aggressive, antagonist alcoholic who sought to profit off the addictions of others. Chastain plays these hidden depths superbly, lending pathos and emotional strength to someone who has been misrepresented, mistreated and mistrusted by everyone around her and yet remains true to her moral convictions.

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It’s Molly’s defiance that will likely prove difficult for viewers to accept, especially in the wake of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have swept Hollywood. While her determination to defend her reputation is understandable, the fact that this requires her to protect the misdeeds and abuses of powerful men makes her stance feel less admirable. More uncomfortable still is a late hint at a possible redemption for these men. In the end, Molly is saved not by her own talents and intelligence, but by the benevolence of a group of old men who take pity on her. How audiences react to that will determine whether Molly’s Game possesses a winning hand or a busted flush.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Screenwriter/director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera