In revisiting 1970s America and Nixon’s attempts to suppress the truth about the Vietnam War, Spielberg, Streep and Hanks have found the perfect film for our times
The Post (12A) ****
The Final Year (12A) ****
Coco (PG) ****
The Commuter (15) ***
Functioning as an unofficial prequel to All The President’s Men, Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama The Post is a timely dramatisation of the media’s determination to hold Richard Nixon’s duplicitous, dangerous and paranoid administration to account in the face of intense pressure to bury a damaging story. Contemporary parallels barely need to be spelled out here, which may be why, beyond acknowledging the film’s lightening-fast production (Spielberg read the first draft of debut writer Liz Hannah’s spec script less than a year ago and was shooting the film by May 2017), the director hasn’t bothered to make them explicit in the actual movie. Whenever The Post features the pre-Watergate Nixon – always shot at a distance through the window of the Oval office, with genuine audio recordings of his voice used where necessary – it trusts us enough to make the connection between Tricky Dicky ranting to his advisors about the media and the petulant “fake news” Twitter accusations emanating from the current occupant of the White House.
But the film works as a prequel to All the President’s Men in another way: set in 1971 and dramatising the Washington Post’s decision to publish a leaked government report detailing America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, it’s an origins story of sorts, examining the Post’s emergence as a nationally trusted journal that can compete with the New York Times’ enviable status as America’s newspaper of record. As such, the film gains extra contemporary relevance by shining a spotlight on the paper’s proprietor, Katharine “Kay” Graham, who was pretty much written out of All the President’s Men, but, as detailed here, was to prove instrumental in the paper’s transition from a local daily to a serious national.
Played by Meryl Streep, Graham starts the film as a powerful woman who hasn’t yet found the confidence to speak her mind. Dismissed by condescending board members as an undeserving heiress unworthy of the respect they accorded her late husband – ironic, given that he himself had inherited the company from Graham’s own father – she’s full of self-doubt and you can see her bristling as she’s expected to take a backseat in her own company for no other reason than because she’s a woman. Trying to secure the family business by taking it public, she’s got a lot to lose and the film is as much about her finding her voice behind the scenes as it is about the machinations of the newsroom. The latter is under the stewardship of executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). He’s frustrated by the New York Times getting the scoop on the Pentagon Papers, so when the Times is slapped with an injunction and prevented from reporting on the story, he sees this as their moment to lead the way.
Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the old-fashioned appeal of this story. It’s a very earnest, and at times self-congratulatory, movie and it suits his sentimental side. Crucially, though, it’s not stodgy in the way that War Horse and Lincoln were. Streep and Hanks are in pure movie star mode, sparking off each other as Graham and Bradlee figure out their respective positions. Spielberg, meanwhile, keeps the story moving at a rapid clip, emulating the constant deadline pressure of a newspaper in a race against time to get the story out there. As such, he may not be able to go into a lot of detail about the origins of the Pentagon Papers themselves (that story is exhaustively documented in Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie), but in illuminating a lesser-known story about their publication he may just have zeroed in on the right narrative for the current moment, something underscored with a dramatic irony-drenched coda that reinforces the need for the continued vigilance of the fourth estate.
There’s no escaping the dramatic irony inherent in Greg Barker’s Obama documentary The Final Year. Following three of the president’s top advisors – Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Press Secretary Ben Rhodes – over Obama’s last 12 months in office, what might have been an interesting look at the day-to-day realities of working in the West Wing in a relatively scandal-free administration is transformed by the looming spectre of Trump into a horror movie in slow motion. It’s compelling in ways you wish it wasn’t.
The latest from Pixar, Coco starts off as a conventional follow-your-dreams story. Set against the backdrop of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, its about a young boy called Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who just wants to sing and play guitar. This being a Pixar film, though, there’s an intriguing twist, one that actually upends those initial expectations via an elaborate magical loophole that traps Miguel in the spirit world and forces him to reckon in much more poignant ways with his family’s history and his own desire to express himself musically. It’s certainly a substantial improvement on recent misfires like The Good Dinosaur and last year’s barrel-scraping Cars 3.
Until the action literally comes off the rails in a badly rendered CGI-heavy finale, there’s some enjoyment to be had in train-bound Liam Neeson thriller The Commuter. Cast as a 60-year-old cop-turned-insurance salesman, Neeson finds himself presented with a moral quandary on the day he loses his job: help a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) identify a passenger named Prynne on his train home and he’ll receive $100,000 in cash. The catch? Prynne might not live all that much longer. It’s preposterous, of course, but the what-would-you-do conundrum gives it an amusing kick and Neeson’s hollowed out everyman is surprisingly compelling. ■