The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post almost looks like a spoof Oscar-garnering machine. Beloved actors working together for the first time, a true story about noble crusaders standing up against the powerful elite, an expert director and plenty of hype from a long way off. But when it actually arrived, it seemed to have run out of puff a little. In practice it only ended up with two nominations – Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep.

And I entered the cinema with a slight sense of obligation. Sure, I know Spielberg will marshal the material with grace and elan; Hanks and Streep are never less than watchable; and I wasn’t overly-familiar with the story. But honestly, with the classic All The President’s Men showing us The Washington Post taking on Nixon already, and the very recent, Best Picture winning Spotlight giving us a more modern take on the brave reporters uncover the truth story, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real need for The Post?

The story is very simple. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg smuggles out classified reports on the doomed Vietnam War and the New York Times begins to run them but is halted by a court injunction. When copies find their way to the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham have to decide whether to risk their newly public company by following suit. And that’s it! That’s the whole story. So this is a film about process, and a film about character.

Spielberg’s ability with shots and editing is unrivalled, of course, but it’s his ability to deploy all of the resources of a filmmaker’s arsenal to deliver story which really sets him apart. I’ve recently noted the care with which he sets up Lincoln’s need to pass a constitutional amendment, and his 2015 film Bridge of Spies is another example of his immense skill and care. So, if anyone is going to tell this story, it’s this filmmaker.

What lets the script down a bit is the relentless determination to make it relevant. The parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to win the public debate by using the courts to silence dissenting voices are obvious, but that doesn’t stop the film from reminding us again and again and again that Trump is behaving in a very similar way. But at its heart, this is a film about characters, and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer create moments for even the smallest parts, which is partly why the roster of talent continues way past the marquee names. Take a bow Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and more besides.

Hanks, of course, is tremendous, delivering a straight-arrow part with straight-arrow charisma. But – perhaps predictably – it’s Meryl Streep’s movie. The portrait of a publishing heiress with the guts to risk it all could have been movie-of-the-week tepid triumph, but Streep invests her with such tremendous vulnerability – even when she’s in the very process of standing up to her army of advisors – that it becomes a uniquely fascinating take on a woman in whom multiple clashing forces are chaotically fighting it out. Sadly, for Streep, Frances McDormand is in the race too, but with three acting Oscars and an unprecedented 21 nominations, I think Streep will be able to bear not winning this one.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is much more complex and unapproachable. In what is being touted as his final film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the gloriously-named Reynolds Woodcock, fifties dressmaker to London’s great and good. With his severe sister (Leslie Manville – magnetic) as his second-in-command, the tetchy, fussy genius of couture continues to command his army of seamstresses and turn out stunning ball gowns and wedding dresses.

Into this controlled and controlling world comes Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and a very strange and twisted battle of wills ensues. If The Post’s storyline is simple, Phantom Thread’s is positively anaemic. Much of the running-time resembles a series of short films, some of which are delightful, some of which are less diverting, some are just a bit frustrating. When Alma, ignoring all advice, tries to disrupt Woodcock’s routine by making him a private romantic dinner, she displays so little understanding of his character, and he displays so little sympathy for her feelings, that it’s hard not to feel entirely fed up with both of them, and it’s very hard to remain invested in the future of their romantic relationship.

When the real nature of their relationship is finally revealed, it’s undeniably arresting and original, and does draw various thematic threads together (sorry) but it’s also faintly ridiculous, with a whiff of off-brand Roald Dahl. And what’s also a peculiar choice is that the film opens with the casual dismissal of the previous girlfriend. This sets Alma up as merely the latest in a series of women, which should make Alma’s refusal to go away much more of a threat to Manville’s Cyril. But in fact, Manville plays almost no part in the final act of the film.

So, it’s also a little hard to understand, particularly in light of the dinner scene above, just what Alma is getting out of the relationship, and also how she is able to see into Woodcock’s soul.

I suspect, more than anything, this is a question of taste. I saw this film with two others one of who adored it and one of whom couldn’t wait for it to end. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. The performances, especially the three leads, are absolutely excellent, and director Anderson makes the most of the locations and wintery London scenes. It’s undeniably original and richly realised, but I think fundamentally I didn’t enjoy being in the company of these people and I began to lose interest in the horrible things they chose to do to each other.

Two films left to go, and to hear my thoughts on Oscar-winners past, do check out my new podcast Best Pick, wherein John Dorney, Jessica Regan and I are watching and reviewing every Academy Award Best Picture winner in no particular order.

 

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