The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

A Hologram for the King

Tom Hanks, Hologram for the KingNot every comedy is for everyone (at least I think this was supposed to be a comedy). Last week I saw The Big Lebowski (1998) at the local movie theater. Packed. People in Lebowski t-shirts, people who raised hands to show they’d seen the movie five, ten, twenty times, people anticipating the laugh lines. Eighteen years from now, nothing like that will happen with this film (trailer) from German director Tom Twyker.

Tom Hanks is American businessman Alan Clay, whose marriage is over and whose career as a salesman is on the skids. In what appears to be a last chance at success, he’s sent to Saudi Arabia to sell the king on a costly holographic teleconferencing system for a new city being built in the desert. He encounters bureaucratic delays, clandestine alcohol consumption, confounding cultural gaps, and unexpected romance.

Where I messed up was in thinking, “Oh, Tom Hanks. He’s always great.” Someone so talented just wouldn’t be in a mediocre film. Why would he? And, I thought, “Oh, Dave Eggers wrote the book it’s based on. Got lots of praise for it too.” For example, New York Times reviewer Pico Iyer called the book “an anguished investigation into how and where American self-confidence got lost and — in the central word another lonely expat uses for Alan— ‘defeated.’” And the Boston Globe: “True genius.”

Someplace along the way, the promise of the book and Hanks got lost, and a more disjointed and implausible narrative is hard to imagine. When we’re told that the crowds Hanks saw at a mosque were there because “that’s where the executions are,” it’s hard to believe that a Saudi woman would take the very great risk of being alone with him, an American infidel.

Hanks does get to drive a very sexy 2015 Audi R8, briefly. But even that isn’t worth the ticket price.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 62%; audiences 95%. (I can only assume they don’t have many viewer ratings yet. IMDb viewers give it 6.3 stars out of 10.)