Thursday, 25 January 2018
2017 USA Directed by Steven Spielberg
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very light spoilers, of a sort, in here if you are not familiar with the subject matter.
I quite like Steven Spielberg.
Pretty much since seeing his TV movie Duel on an old black and white set back in the early 70s.
I think he’s a director who, for the most part, makes consistently good films, sometimes great films and whose star status behind the camera dwarfs most actors and celebrities he works with. I’ve not seen all of his work but I’ve seen the large majority of it (barring a few films) and, asides from stuff which were real clunkers and which I could never quite bring myself to watch again (like E.T - The Extra Terrestrial and A.I) then you are usually on to a winner if you take a trip to the cinema to see one of his movies. He’ll also, usually, get to show you a moment or two of things which are unique or inventive.
Now, The Post, is a pretty good movie. It’s not a great movie but it is, at the very least, entertaining. I thought it was less gripping than a more recent cinematic outing into investigative journalism from a couple of years ago - Spotlight (reviewed by me here) but this is still genuinely compelling in places... especially if, like me, you have absolutely no first hand (or even any second hand) knowledge of the real life events that are being depicted in the movie.
The film opens strongly as we follow a soldier called Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys, on a stint in the Vietnam war. As his patrol is ambushed and all hell breaks loose we have a nice transition where the footage is revealed to be him flashing back to this chapter of his life as he rides a presidential plane in his current job. We then see him, a few years later, start to abscond with... and then have photocopied... various documents which show a history of American presidential regimes have been lying about the success and expectations of that particular war.
We then meet some of the other key characters in the film, the main two being Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, an editor or head of department for The Washington Post (someone who I believe both Hanks and Spielberg knew socially at some point in their lives) and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, the owner of the family business that The Washington Post was. Now, we have a few things going on at the start of the film... declining sales, Kay Graham’s decision to launch the newspaper on the stock market and, amongst all this, Bradlee’s hunch that a crack writer at one of their rivals, The New York Times, has been silent lately and so must be working on something really important. These threads are followed and pulled together as we flit between the team of reporters working on their assignments and Kay’s social circle, where it’s highlighted that she knows some of the players about to be embroiled in what happens when, as Bradlee gets wind of, The New York Times are going to publish Ellsberg’s 'Pentagon Papers' and reveal the dark underbelly and legacy of the US politics.
When The New York Times are threatened with a cease and desist document from the American government while they seek to sue them, one of Bradlee’s people find the source (Ellsberg), gets the photocopies of the documents from him - which are almost to hot to handle (as it happens, the real ones from the actual incident were used in all the scenes where they are seen in the film, it seems) - and the film then becomes about whether Kay should greenlight printing them in this manner and, very briefly, the outcome of the court case in light of her decision.
It’s good stuff and, as you would expect from Spielberg and the team of craftsmen he surrounds himself with, it’s all put together pretty well including, of course, the excellent performances from a wealth of great actors. Of special note, naturally, are Streep and Hanks and, since I don’t have too much to say about the way the movie has been put together, let me just focus on these two giants of modern acting for a moment.
Streep is someone who I haven’t seen that much but she’s always struck me as being completely convincing in any role I’ve seen her in (starting for me, I think, with her role as Woody Allen’s lesbian ex-wife in his classic Manhattan). Now, I have to say, I found her character a little infuriating here... because she seems so, how do I put this... measured here, in her delivery. It’s like the character takes time to process every thought and sentence and I had a real desire to just shake her and tell her to get her words out quicker. Which tells me two things... one, the real life person she’s playing must have had some element of that inherent in her personality (or there was a good reason for playing it like this) and, two, she must be a bloody good actress (which I think enough people know by now).
Hanks surprised me a little. I’ve always liked him since I started pointing him out to people as some one who may go far after seeing him in a TV movie called Mazes And Monsters when it was broadcast in the UK in the early 1980s. I was thrilled when he got a big feature film role in Splash and, yeah, I guess the rest is history... and he’s always been an actor I’ve liked but he’s also someone who I equate with being a ‘movie star’. That is to say, he plays more or less the same type of person in every film and he’s generally someone you wouldn’t mind hanging out with in a bar. So I was astonished at just how different the character he inhabited here seemed. I mean, yes, it’s still Hanks and he feels all Hanks-ike as usual but, there’s something extra here somehow. An edge to the character where he would say and do things and I would think... I wouldn’t expect Tom Hanks to say or do that in quite that way so... yeah, there you go again. Another great actor and also a joy to watch.
Now, Spielberg is someone whose films I have mostly enjoyed (as I mentioned earlier) but he’s one of those rare director’s who I’ve never really been able to identify as having a discernable signature style in his work. Other than always being amazingly competent and providing nice compositions which don’t call attention to themselves. Now I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way either but... looking at this... I kinda noticed something which I think may actually be something he does in other films... I just can’t think of a single example off the top of my head right now. However, in The Post, I caught him doing this...
He will switch out from a general shot of lot of hubbub where a fair few people are doing things which are fairly distracting (almost like a mini version of a Robert Altman movie but... not quite that distracting and disorganised) and then one character, often not the main character, will be given a task which becomes his or her purpose for the rest of the shot and quite possibly the next scene. And then the camera will filter everything else out and go hell bent for leather with that person as he or she completes her task to fill in, usually, an important plot point. So, for instance, Hanks character might grab an intern and tell him to do some stuff over the background miasma of a noisy office and then, suddenly, we follow that intern with a certain speed and purpose which dominates the scene for the next minute or two... I dunno. I just go the feeling that it’s a genuine Spielbergism and I’m going to be watching a few more of his movies this year (hopefully) and see if it’s a common factor. This idea of splitting away from a general ensemble atmosphere and then suddenly intensifying the focus onto just one character for a minute at the exclusion of all else.
The other big star and character in this, if you will, is the wonderful score by Spielberg’s regular musical collaborator, composer John Williams. Now, I have been a big admirer of this composer and have been following his career and going to concerts by him since the 1970s. When he scored Star Wars - The Force Awakens a couple of years ago, I thought it was one of the best things he’d written in many years and he really would have deserved the Oscar for that one (alas, I believe Oscar politics may have gotten in the way of things that year). Even my friend who is a big Williams devotee and who used to even travel to Boston in the United States to see him in concert too, agrees with me that his music for The Last Jedi was a real patchwork of a score and a bit of a career lowlight.
However, having now seen this movie, I’m baffled as to why he got an Oscar nomination for his new Star Wars score when, frankly, his score for The Post is way more deserving. I think, of many Spielberg films, this really does need the supporting score to drive home its points. It’s not particularly subtle but it really helps the film that it isn’t, I think. I said last year that Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk was the only thing which provided the underlying tension of that film and, if you took it away, the movie would fall flat. I think the same thing applies to The Post. There were sequences here where Williams is using... well not exactly 1950s B-movie stingers but certainly a close cousin as he highlights conversations and sequences with a building menace which, frankly, I would not have realised were supposed to be in any way suspenseful without the score there to spell it out for me. It’s probably because I don’t understand and don’t really care about anything political, in terms of not knowing I was supposed to be feeling lurking dread but, thankfully, Williams provides it all here and this is a real example of a score doing more than just supporting the film, I think.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. The Post closes out with, more or less, a reconstruction of the opening sequence of the classic film All The President’s Men and, I’d have to say, although I don’t think this movie is quite as powerful as that one, it would make one hell of a good double bill playing before it at cinemas. So there you have it, Spielberg gives us, not a great film but a fairly good one and, with his track record, that’s really not bad. If you enjoy movies of this ilk then you’ll no doubt like this one too so... catch it at the cinema to get the best of that Johnny Williams score, is my advice.