Steven Spielberg’s last DC-based movie was a triumph: “Lincoln” in 2012. It featured a stirring historical moment, showing, in the battle for the 13th Amendment, the best ever cinematic treatment of legislative process. Come 2017, and Spielberg presents another DC movie with historical import, this one more current but also momentous. “The Post,” just arrived for Christmas, dramatizes the decision by The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, an act threatening the paper’s very existence. The movie recreates that moment with consummate skill and suspense. (Now in theaters, the film is rated PG-13 and runs 116 minutes.)
Co-written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, “The Post” begins with a Vietnam War episode, wherein young RAND consultant Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) comes face-to-face with the realities of the war and makes the crucial decision, together with other colleagues, to purloin a copy of a classified Pentagon study on American involvement in Vietnam – later named the Pentagon Papers – then to duplicate it and then seek to have it published. The document eventually finds its way to The New York Times, which publishes excerpts on June 13, 1971, only to be served with an injunction from the Nixon administration from publishing further.
The Post, exasperated by The Times’ coup, seeks out its own copy of the papers, and, through a connection Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) has with Ellsberg, comes into possession of the collection. For a time, the dilemma whether to publish or not vexes publisher Katherine (Kay) Graham (Meryl Streep), executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), their staff and their legal team, presenting the possibility of contempt of court charges and even jail time. On their decision hangs the fate of the newspaper – and the truth.
This First Amendment thriller plays out in roughly a week of June 1971, and Spielberg and company keep the tension up, even though the action is mainly people hollering at each other in offices and pressrooms. Luckily, that hollering consists mostly of swift and smart dialogue delivered by a bunch of seasoned players like Odenkirk, as well as Tracey Letts, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Cross, among others. Bruce Greenwood, a stalwart in political dramas (he played JFK in “Thirteen Days”), is a forceful yet conniving Defense Secretary Bob McNamara, trying, through his good friend Kay, to quash the papers, which he commissioned.
The true dynamic, of course, is the interplay between Graham and Bradlee, the latter urging the former to give the OK for journalistic, legal and even personal reasons. It’s the crusty, ink-stained scribe testing his retiring, aims-to-please boss thrown into a role for which she has been little prepared.
Hanks doesn’t much look like Bradlee, but he gets the man’s energy and growl right and delivers his lines with pungency and urgency; a big cat on a chain. The contrast with Streep’s Graham is stark. We see her first in sweet hostess mode, a woman allergic to confrontation and censure. The dramatic arc Streep must undertake to become a decision-maker is glorious to watch, achieved in timely increments and facial signals rather than with fancy flourishes. One perfect example of her evolution comes in an intimate sit-down with the irascible McNamara. He pleads against The Post’s publishing, to which she responds: “I’m asking your advice, Bob, not your permission.”
Typical of DC movies these days, “The Post” barely uses our city (most of it was shot in White Plains, N.Y., and a Brooklyn studio). Local shooting basically incorporated the standard monuments as backdrops to show the dramatic delivery of the papers. Thus, we see bound copies of The Post being curiously dumped off trucks at sites where no papers are ever delivered, like the front of the Capitol, at the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue and random sites near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. For Capitol Hill locals, the strangest drop is right onto East Capitol Street flanking the Folger Library, just to get that Capitol dome in!
(Note: Spielberg adds a lovely homage at the end, which shows the discovery of the Watergate break-in in a sequence that imitates the opening shots from that other great journalistic DC movie, “All the President’s Men.”)
The first directorial effort by screenwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin could hardly be anything but a word-fest. Sorkin is singular in his screenplays and teleplays for displaying a torrent of dialogue, often delivered on the run (nicknamed the “walk and talk” style). More, he is able to produce logorrhea on arcane subjects such as baseball statistics, social media, TV journalism or legislative conundrums. In his latest film, “Molly’s Game,” his subject is high-stakes poker – as practiced among celebrities, multi-millionaires and members of the Russian mob – and as usual he can sweep you along even if you understand little. (Opened at Christmas, the film is rated R and runs 140 minutes.)
What Sorkin has up his sleeve or in the hole (can’t resist the card cliches) is Jessica Chastain as his Molly. She is Molly Bloom, a real-life figure who, in a memoir, wrote about her running high-stakes poker games for a decade in Los Angeles and New York. The film opens with Molly being rudely arrested by the FBI in the middle of the night. Her supposed mob “connections” are the trigger for the arrest, and she promptly hires criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who hears Molly’s story as played out in flashbacks.
Unlike other Sorkin scripts, this one depends greatly on a narrator, Molly, who in measured tones tells the story of her gambling life. That story emphasizes that Molly was ever and always legal, never pocketing table winnings but only receiving tips from players and duly reporting all her earnings to the IRS! Where the walk and talk comes in “Molly’s Game” is in the fencing back and forth between Jaffey and Bloom, where the exchange is in legal jargon, and the dialogues with her poker colleagues, where the language is often that of seven-card stud. Just let the words pour over you and enjoy the actors’ handling of them.
Chastain handles the dialogue and the character with cool self-possession, presenting a woman under pressure who radiates confidence. Hollywood smoothies like Player X (Michael Cera) or lovable moon dogs like Douglas (Chris O’Dowd) try to manipulate her, but she is too clever to be waylaid. Her assured demeanor echoes much of her role in last year’s “Miss Sloane” but substituting poker for lobbying.
Chastain has already earned two Oscar nominations during this decade (for “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). Don’t be surprised if she nabs another this month.
Awards Time: Best Films of the Year
Early last month, the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) voted for its best films and performances of the year. The horror-comedy “Get Lost” won as Best Picture, and Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) and director Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) won the top three individual awards. The association represents some 50 film critics in the DC, Maryland and northern Virginia region. Your friendly Hill Rag critic – and a WAFCA member – favored Oldman too, but picked Saiorse Ronan for her perfect performance in “Lady Bird” and felt the stunning “Dunkirk” merited the Best Picture award as well as Best Director (Nolan). As almost always happens, film fans may lament the lack of “good” pictures, but dozens of worthy ones still emerge every year.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.