This is the time of year when films are released that seem to be made solely so filmmakers can have a shot at nabbing an Oscar on worldwide television. While this might result in movies that are filled with “Meaning,” it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re entertaining.
“The Post” is perhaps this year’s prime example of that kind of film. Teaming multiple-Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks for the first time, with legendary director Steven Spielberg at the helm, it tells the story of how the federal government tried to stop the New York Times and Washington Post from printing the Pentagon Papers.
The papers — a major report stolen by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg from the mega-defense contractor Rand Corp. — revealed decades of lies by various presidents about US foreign policy and the Vietnam War. Their ultimate revelation to the public played a key role in bringing down the US war machine there.
The intensive legal battles led all the way to the Supreme Court, setting a huge modern precedent for press freedoms while also paralleling many of the battles occurring presently between the media and the Trump administration. “The Post” also shines a light on the personal struggles of Post owner Katharine Graham, who became the first female Fortune 500 CEO when she assumed control of the company after her husband’s suicide and debated taking the Post public at the same time as her legal struggles.
The film opens with a 1965 firefight in the Vietnam jungle that goes poorly for the American forces. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ignores the poor reports he is receiving from Ellsberg and claims that the war effort is going great, Ellsberg reaches his breaking point and absconds with the papers.
Much of “The Post” covers the battle between the New York Times and the Washington Post — which until then had been the Times’ scrappy upstart competition — to get the scoop right and get it first. The action mostly takes place six years later in 1971, beginning with Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) wondering why the Times’ top investigative reporter, Neil Sheehan, has been unseen in that paper for several months.
Bradlee assumes that Sheehan has been working on a top-secret story, and turns out to be right when the Times starts publishing Sheehan’s stories about the Pentagon Papers. As Bradlee convinces Ellsberg to give the reports to the Post as well, President Nixon orders his attorney general to stop the Times from publishing any more of the top-secret documents and the Justice Department takes the Times to court.
This race adds some inherently fun tension to the film, and Hanks clearly enjoys playing the tough-as-nails, constantly smoking Post editor Ben Bradlee. Streep has some fine moments as Graham, but mostly drains the tension from the film with her quietly emotional prattling. The film has a couple of other weak aspects as well.
First off, any film depicting a major historical moment has a built-in disadvantage in that the outcome is already known or could be easily found by the audience. This eliminates much of the element of suspense in a film like this, which relies on evoking “down to the wire” tension.
Secondly, Graham’s personal struggles are far less intriguing than the scenes depicting Ellsberg’s daring actions and the fast-paced montages covering the court battles and rush to print the stories. While John Williams delivers a superb score in the larger dramatic moments, he devolves into crafting sappy melodies during the quieter moments in which Graham drones on endlessly about her difficult position.
One might also question why the film focuses on the Washington Post when the New York Times first broke the story. But that’s a minor quibble in a film that remains valuable as a reminder that a free press is important and the struggle to maintain those freedoms is never-ending.
“The Post” B
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver
Length: 152 minutes
Directed by: Rian Johnson
The latest epic in the series is a terrific game-changer and a vast improvement over “The Force Awakens.” Mark Hamill is fantastic as a haunted Luke Skywalker striving to make one last stand against the evil Empire, while Adam Driver is much better as villain Kylo Ren than he was in “Awakens.” Rousing action and plenty of heart make this a vibrant entry and well worth seeing. Grade: A
Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau
Length: 135 minutes
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “The Descendants”) is a master of American slice of life satire, and his latest presents Damon as an average American who opts to be shrunk to a tiny degree in order to improve his financial life. A smart, occasionally touching commentary on American consumerism, it features Chinese actress Chou in a breakout performance that should win Best Supporting Actress. Grade: B
THE LAST SHOWMAN
Stars: Hugh Jackman, MIchelle Williams, Zac Efron
Length: 105 minutes
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Hugh Jackman uses his considerable charisma as he sings, dances and gives a terrific performance as legendary showman P.T. Barnum. The composers of “La La Land” deliver an impressive score blending hip hop and classical to create vibrant songs that drive a richly entertaining story. Efron and Williams are outstanding as well in the year’s best musical. Grade: A
Stars: Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken
Length: 113 minutes
Directed by: Lawrence Sher
Wilson and Helms were two of the funniest guys in movies until a couple years ago, but their teaming here as twin brothers who go in search of the father they never knew just doesn’t work. Their disparate looks alone are ridiculous casting, and the movie relies on repetitive, tired jokes about how their mother (Close) was a tramp in the 1970s. Countless other opportunites for laughs devolve into punchless sap. Grade: F
THE DISASTER ARTIST
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen
Length: 103 minutes
Directed by: James Franco
James Franco does amazing work both in front of and behind the camera in this humorous history of the making of one of the worst films of all time, 2003’s “The Room.” Casting his brother Dave as the best friend of eccentric filmmaker Tommy Wiseau – whom James himself plays- is a brilliant move, drawing out a surprising amount of heart from what could have been simple mockery and making this a “Rocky” for indie filmmakers. Grade: A