Steven Spielberg can do almost anything on screen … except duck the zeitgeist.
The Oscar winner began making “The Post” just as liberals pleaded with reporters to hold President-Elect Donald Trump accountable in the grand Woodward/Bernstein fashion.
It didn’t exactly happen that way.
A wave of fake and exaggerated news stories greeted the new president, a fighter who didn’t take the biased news reports lying down. Trump turned the Left’s “fake news” creation back on them, to the detriment of the journalism brand.
Call it a self-inflicted wound.
It makes “The Post” an odd viewing experience, to say the least. That doesn’t mean Spielberg’s latest is without merit or entertainment value. It’s slickly packaged and boasts another bravura turn by Meryl Streep.
The context? That’s another matter entirely, one the film can’t help but bring up in ways that don’t flatter its intentions.
Streep stars as Katharine Graham, the new publisher of The Washington Post. The news game is a man’s world, but she isn’t keen on letting others dictate her role.
She’s soon confronted with a challenge that could buckle any publisher’s knees. Should the Post follow in the footsteps of The New York Times and publish The Pentagon Papers? The study revealed what the U.S. Government really thought about the Vietnam War in ways that could embolden the anti-war movement, at the very least.
The Post’s Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is on the front lines of the battle with Graham. He’s an old school journalist itching for both a scoop and to one-up the competition.
What about the White House? Team Nixon isn’t keen on seeing the Pentagon Papers plastered all over the front page. Can Graham and Bradlee win the fight to share those Papers far and wide … or could they end up wearing prison stripes for their troubles?
You might think “The Post” would teem with anachronistic moments, the kind meant to appease “the resistance.” Spielberg won’t have any of that, at least on paper. He sticks to the historical script, allowing Graham’s personal story to dominate the saga.
That makes dramatic sense. Streep is still Streep, a three time Oscar winner, and the modern-day implications of a woman heading a massive news organization matters.
That doesn’t mean “The Post” dodges sanctimony. It’s a mash note to retro journalism, as full of itself as Dan Rather being revived from the career graveyard to attack Trump.
“We’re not always perfect,” Streep’s Graham says late in the film. Talk about an understatement. Or another line of dialogue from a Fourth Estater: “We have to be the check on the power .. if we won’t who will?”
Like last year’s “Battle of the Sexes,” “The Post” isn’t content to let history unfold without some extraneous exclamation points.
Sarah Paulson gets that chore, cast in a microscopic role with one big speech repeating the feminist themes already articulated in the screenplay.
Spielberg knows less is more … but apparently he couldn’t help himself. He does it again later in the film, staging a moment where Graham is darn near deified by young female reporters. He’s known for yanking on our emotions, and then wrapping them around a door knob and slamming the door shut. It marks his best and worst films, but the schmaltz is particularly unnecessary here.
FAST FACT: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the comprehensive study (7,000 pages long) of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam in 1967, four years before the “papers” hit newsstands first courtesy of The New York Times.
Hanks, a national treasure, is shockingly all wrong here. He feels too Movie Starry, an actor who suddenly believes his own hype. Worse? His character’s accent wanders like a punch-drunk fighter returning to his corner.
“The Post” also hammers home press biases that didn’t suddenly erupt in the Age of Trump. In its world, reporters all hated President Nixon and didn’t bother to hide it.
Hanks’ Bradlee cries, “The President is taking a s*** on the First Amendment.”
Reporters also schmoozed with the power players — Bradley with President John F. Kennedy, Graham with Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
No one in “The Post” seems to care, not a lick, if publishing the material in question could hurt the nation or its troops. Bradlee brings up the subject briefly, admits he can’t know for sure, and then the argument is gone.
How convenient … and revealing.
Spielberg’s “Post” is in awe of print. Newspapers flutter in the breeze. Old school presses churn and wheeze while producing the next morning’s edition. Typewriters clack in the smoky newsroom. His love for the process is palpable and cinematically smart.
We get it, and we’d applaud it more if modern journalists weren’t such hacks. Spielberg couldn’t stage craft a more welcoming cultural moment. “The Posts” may have its flaws, but that fact isn’t his fault.
HiT or Miss: “The Post” pulls out the stops to honor a significant moment in journalism history, but it can’t escape the pull of the present.
We need “Paddington” now more than ever. Really.
The lovable bear from countless stories made his film debut in 2015. That movie was a flat-out charmer, featuring a villainous turn by Nicole Kidman.
The sequel? Well, it’s just as good, maybe a tad better, but that’s not the best reason to recommend it. At a time when discourtesy is contagious and hate flows freely on social media we need a counterbalance. Someone, or something, that reminds us we can get along better if we’re just a little nicer, a smidge kinder.
That’s Paddington’s raison d’etre. And thank heavens for it.
Lovable Paddington (perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw) is living a comfortable life with the Browns. That changes when he comes across a pop-up book he simply must have.
Oh, it’s not for him, mind you. He’d love to give it to his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) back home. Our Paddington is selfless to the core. His dear Aunt taught him that.
Only someone else wants the book, too. Hugh Grant leaps off the screen as the sequel’s villain, a hammy actor reduced to filming dog food commercials. The plot, which is admittedly strained in the first act, deposits Paddington in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Those nasty prisoners are no match for his kindness.
Making sweet, positive family movies is a breeze. Making sweet, positive family movies with grand slapstick, solid performances and a script that doesn’t make you grind your teeth?
Darn near impossible.
“Paddington 2” director Paul King does it here, just like he pulled it off with the original. The physical comedy is winning and smart. The sly gags almost all land. And the cast is so very good they’re both upstaged by the main attraction while stealing tiny moments all for themselves.
The story packs the usual Hollywood coincidences, like how several character’s tics prove more than useful in the third act. And the hardened criminals who hang with Paddington have a sugary side you expect from a PG-rated romp.
You won’t find any swear words or sexual innuendos here, though. “Paddington 2” is as clean as could be, and the humor flows from the characters and knowing script. Watching an exasperated Paddington master the fine art of window washing is to experience a first rate sight gag in motion.
Best of all? Fine actors don’t have to slum to appear in a kiddie film.
Brendan Gleeson has a blast as Knuckles, the prison cook who serves up inedible sludge on a daily basis. The Brown family doesn’t get enough attention, but Mama and Papa Brown (Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville) are as good as ever. You need their presence to ground the story.
The rest is up to Paddington, a creature we can’t wait to see again … and again … as an antidote to our angry age.
HiT or Miss: “Paddington 2” is charming, funny and magical. What more could you ask of a family-friendly movie?