Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.
Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks
Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception.
The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.
Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee
The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.
Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.
Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts)
On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.
One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.
The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing.
Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated).
The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham
Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.)
Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
What is it about space? The idea that there might be other life forms out there continues to captivate young and old and provides filmmakers with plot lines that excite and, at times, frighten us. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival invites comparison to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a seminal work about extraterrestrials. But Arrival’s time-shifting also recalls Memento, directed and written by Christopher Nolan. You will spend time afterwards fitting together all the pieces.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor whose college class ends abruptly with news that 12 spaceships have landed in various locations around the world. Fueled by sensational TV coverage, citizens begin to panic, believing a war of the worlds is about to start. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at Louise’s house – she worked with them previously on translations – asking for her help. They need to communicate with the aliens, who can be heard on a recording sounding like what they are – creatures from another world. Also recruited by the federal government is Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist.
There’s no obvious connection between the landing sites, which include spots in Russia, China, Pakistan, Australia, the Sudan, and others. In the U.S., the spaceship, a tall, black oblong object with a flat back, hovers above the ground in a large, grassy field in Montana. A formidable military installation has sprung up a safe distance from the ship, a series of tents housing work areas, sleeping areas, and a medical facility. Computer monitors are linked to foreign governments so that the countries can share whatever information they gather, hoping that working together they will discover what the aliens want.
Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams
Shortly after Louise and Ian arrive in Montana, they are given physical exams and immunized against any viruses or bacteria they might be exposed to when they enter the ship. As additional precautions, they wear bright orange hazmat suits and carry oxygen. (When a caged bird they have brought on board shows no ill effects, Louise ditches the protective gear to better relate to the outsiders.)
What’s inside the spaceship? What do the visitors look like? Villeneuve skillfully builds the suspense. Louise and her team enter the ship through what looks like an empty elevator shaft. There’s no gravity, so they gradually rise to the top, finding themselves facing two aliens, who appear behind a glass partition. Rather than the vicious predator Sigourney Weaver encountered in Alien, these creatures appear more benign, resembling large, upright octopi.
Louise begins by writing simple words on a tablet. The aliens form “words” by extending a tentacle and shooting a black inky substance that forms any number of circular ink blots. Each is a word, and Louise begins to collect and translate them. In succeeding meetings, she uses this new vocabulary to talk with the creatures, dubbed Abbott and Costello by Ian.
But something gets lost in translation when the word “weapon” shows up in the conversation. Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) views the communication as a threat and, with China already poised to strike, he also wants to take military action. Louise must race against time to obtain more information.
Not only is Louise operating on little sleep, she’s also experiencing visions about her daughter, who died from a serious illness. Are these flashbacks or flash forwards? And how are they illusions related to what is happening with the aliens?
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner
Arrival is not Independence Day or a War of the Worlds, where extraterrestrials land on earth and begin to blow up buildings and kill people. Anyone expecting an over-the-top action film will be disappointed. We do eventually learn more about the aliens, but rather than threatening, they appear earnest, eager to have Louise understand their purpose.
The supporting actors – Renner and Whitaker – are fine, but this is Adams’ film. Her performance as a brilliant and dedicated linguist may spark an interest in the scientific study of language. While we know we’re watching fiction, the steps she takes to establish a connection, then to decipher a totally new, and yes, alien language, are fascinating. She’s intense and is at her best when in these scenes, approaching the aliens not as monsters, but as a puzzle to be solved. But when the frightening dreams of her daughter descend upon her, she loses control, the panic registering on her face. It’s not until the credits begin to roll that we understand what has transpired and how that close encounter has wound up affecting her life forever.
Mel Gibson is back with a vengeance, directing a World War II drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a rifle and ends up saving the lives of 75 soldiers. Gibson, who won an Academy Award for directing Braveheart, has not directed a film since 2006’s Apocalypto. After a stellar career as both an actor and director, in 2010, Gibson suffered a series of public meltdowns. He was dropped by his talent agency and essentially treated as a persona non grata. Hollywood, however, loves a good comeback story and this film could help Gibson restart his career. While not rising to the level of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge is a riveting wartime drama that celebrates an unexpected and unconventional hero.
Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) served in World War I and emerged with a medal and a damaged psyche. After watching several of his friends die horrible deaths, he returned home and began drinking and abusing his wife. “You didn’t know him before the war,” his wife, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), says in his defense. When Tom threatens Bertha with a gun, their son, Des (Andrew Garfield), manages to take the weapon away and turn it on his father. That event becomes a tipping point in Des’s life, leading him to embrace his religion as a Seventh Day Adventist, eschew all forms of violence, and vow never again to touch a gun.
Teresa Palmer and Andrew Garfield
Des discovers his medical talent when he saves a man’s life by using his belt as a tourniquet. While at the hospital, he meets an attractive nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he vows to marry. Initially reluctant, Dorothy is won over by Des’s “aw-shucks” charm and his admirable adherence to his religious values.
After his brother, Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists – over the objections of his father – Des feels obligated to do his part, signing on to become an Army medic. Des winds up in a boot camp where each recruit is required to carry a rifle and learn how to use it. While Army medics are tasked to treat those injured, they also carry weapons for protection. Des’s refusal to even touch a rifle is viewed as placing not only himself, but also his fellow soldiers at risk. An inflexible military system threatens him with a court martial. The way he escapes conviction is unusual, but, from the film’s point of view, satisfying.
Des’s Courtmartial Hearing
Des’s unit is sent to Okinawa, where a battle is raging on a rocky, desolate plateau dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Taking the territory would allow the Allies to score an important victory against the Japanese, but the battle will be bloody and costly. Remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, showing Americans landing on the beaches in Normandy? That scene was mild compared with the relentless battlefield carnage we see in Hacksaw Ridge. Limbs are blown off, guts spilled, and Japanese soldiers incinerated with flame throwers. In the midst of this human destruction, Des continues his mission, treating and rescuing as many soldiers as he can. With each wounded soldier he finds, he does what he can, applying tourniquets to staunch bleeding, administering morphine to deal with pain. He drags each wounded soldier to the lip of the ridge and slowly lowers them to the ground below using a rope, that, while knotted improperly, still does the trick. Running on fumes, he returns again and again to find someone he might have missed, praying to God to give him strength to save “just one more.” Garfield’s performance is intense. While we know that he will survive (the real Des went on to become the only CO to receive the Medal of Honor), each time he risks going back to the battlefield, we fear for his safety.
The soldiers Des saves are transported to the camp’s medical facility. Des’s commanding officer, Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), is shocked to see so many from his platoon alive and being treated. When he asks one soldier, Milt Zane, nicknamed “Hollywood” (Luke Pegler), how he got out, he credits Des. Others repeat the medic’s name. When the final tally comes in, Des has saved 75 soldiers. Someone once viewed as a coward for his reluctance to carry a weapon winds up being the hero of the battle.
There are memorable performances among the supporting cast. Vince Vaughn, in a departure from his comic roles, is effective as Sergeant Howell, who bullies Des, hoping he will drop out, but winds up being saved by the medic. Weaving’s Tom Doss is a tragic figure who redeems himself and repairs the relationship with his wife and family. Seen through a present-day lens, Tom has PTSD, and Weaving’s poignant performance allows us to see his suffering. As a soldier called “Smitty,” Luke Bracey has a touching scene with Garfield. Sharing a foxhole, Smitty, who was once Des’s nemesis, finds he has a lot in common with the CO, a surprising friendship formed in the midst of war.
Coulrophobia aka “fear of clowns” appears to be gripping the land these days. But as we all know clowns (whose intended purpose is to make us laugh) have long been a source of terror for many. Consider “Twisty” on American Horror Story: Freakshow. Consider the numerous iterations of “The Joker,” on screen or on page. Or watch any of the following films…if you dare.
Poltergeist (1982) William Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed this instant horror masterpiece that was written and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg himself. While the movie’s main focus is on the evil ghosts that kidnap the Freeling family’s youngest child, added frights come from a possessed clown doll who attacks the family son. It has an 88% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, was nominated for three Academy Awards, and made AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space(1988) This is the sole film written AND directed by the notorious Chido Brothers who did the puppets and effect work for such movies as Critters and Team America: World Police. Starring Grant Cramer (An Inconvenient Woman, Raptor) and Suzanne Snyder (Weird Science, Night of the Creeps). Evil aliens descend on a small town planning to capture, kill, and harvest the human population. The twist is that for some unknown reason, the aliens all look like circus clowns. It has since become a cult hit with a 71% fresh rating on the Tomatometer.
Clownhouse (1989) Written and directed by Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers) and starring Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, and Sam Rockwell in his film debut. Three young brothers are left alone one night while their mother is visiting relatives and so they visit a circus despite the youngest boys coulrophobia. Of course pretty soon all three of them will have coulrophobia when their home is invaded by three homicidal, escaped mental patients disguised as clowns. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
It (1990) This supernatural horror mini-series based on the Stephen King bestseller of the same name originally aired on ABC to good reviews. The story revolves around an inter-dimensional evil lifeform who can transform into people’s worst fears. It’s most popular form though is that of Pennywise (Tim Curry whose performance was widely praised) a sardonic, sadistic clown. A group of misfit kids known as the Losers Club discover Pennywise and vow to destroy him; first attempting to do as children and then later as adults. Also starring Annette O’ Toole, John Ritter, Tim Reid, Michael Cole and Dennis Christopher. Richard Bellis received an Emmy Award for his work on the musical score.
Saw (2004) The cult hit that kicked off one of the biggest modern horror franchises owed its success to many factors. It’s pioneering efforts in how graphic on screen violence could be, Tobin Bell’s performance as the cunning and sadistic Jigsaw Killer John Kramer, and also for its use of “Billy” the malevolent little clown puppet, that Kramer uses as his ‘voice.’
It stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” and though he’s older than history can tell, this is the only name he has. The redundant nomenclature is care of an insomniac orphan who sees something she isn’t meant to see and that changes her life — and the world. On the surface The BFG is a simple yarn for children. However it also presents opportunities for audiences of all ages to look at their positions in the world and decide whether or not things are as they should be. That this very British movie should come out at a time when Britain is facing some real, potentially history-changing turmoil is clearly a coincidence, but a serendipitous one.
Based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, The BFG the movie follows the tale of a little girl named Sophie, played by 12-year-old newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Sophie’s parents died when she was even younger, leaving her in the care of a negligent caretaker, Mrs. Clonkers. Very little time is spent addressing the nature of Clonker’s shortcomings, though we see Sophie locking up the house at night, making sure the clocks are on time, and telling off the loud drunkards who stumble out of the nearby pub at 3 a.m. It is during such an exchange that she notices an overturned trash bin, and then the giant hand that sets it right.
Though she doesn‘t know it yet, the hand belongs to the only non-cannibalistic giant in the world. Still, she’s seen too much, so that hand comes through the open dormitory doors and snatches Sophie from her bed — blanket, book and all — and whisks her away. Sophie is carried hundreds of miles from London, but after a bumpy start and a couple of failed escape attempts, the little girl and the big, gentle, elderly looking chap develop an understanding and friendship that bridges the gap between their sizes.
Her new friend collects good dreams from “dream country” that he delivers to sleeping children. It’s a lifestyle we soon see is endangered by the nine other inhabitants of “giant country,” a dreadful, quarrelsome group of child-eaters who are much bigger and much stronger than the BFG. (This group’s leader is Fleshlumpeater, played with great baritone menace by Jemaine Clement.) They just want to find the children and chow down. What the BFG eats instead will bring a knowing smile to those well versed in the Dahl lexicon.
Sophie witnesses the bullying the BFG endures, the lack of privacy and respect for his work, the utter disregard the other giants show for him and declares that something must be done. There is a lot to be said about bullying in this scene. There’s the question of how you handle it when you’re so much smaller and so very outnumbered. There’s the idea that no matter what you should try to stand up for yourself, or at least protect yourself. There’s the notion that the good guy will always be outnumbered and outmuscled, and the insistence that even then one can triumph over adversity with a little cleverness and cunning.
What follows is a child’s take on international cooperation, the triumph of good against evil, punishment of the chronically wicked, and the delightful effects of fizzy drinks.
The first half of the film is quite slow and, despite several attempts to grab the viewer with perspective tricks, lacks the energy one would expect in a Steven Spielberg movie. The trudging pacing is offset somewhat by the gorgeous, luscious scenery and attention to detail with respect to the titular character. The BFG, played by Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor extraordinaire Mark Rylance, bears many of Rylance’s features. From his sloping eyebrows to his sort of tight-lipped half-mumble, character artists have created an expressive and mostly realistic-looking figure. In close-up you can see pores in his skin, micro-wrinkles, wild hairs growing out of seemingly unexpected places for what is, for all intents and purposes, a high-level cartoon.
Where the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a distinct look and feel, that slow half made me question how members of the young target audience would sit through it. Kids won’t necessarily be captivated by the technological expertise. They want a good, entertaining story. And this is one; it just takes some time to get there.
A series of thoroughly silly scenes set in Buckingham palace kick things up to a really enjoyable pace. Laden with flatulence humor and sight gags, these scenes will no doubt tickle younger viewers’ funny bones and keep them giggling. These same scenes also make some interesting statements about acceptance, inclusion, trust and open-mindedness — something that perhaps we don’t see enough of these days. Penelope Wilton and Rafe Spall make a charming comedic duo as queen and footman, and no doubt kids will find the royal corgis utterly hilarious.
As with so many of Dahl’s stories, the ending is a mixed bag of dark and light, and it doesn’t deny the truth or strength of a child’s feelings and loyalty. It’s a mostly happy end, just tinged with sadness, but that may be more evident to the parents than their children. All in all, it’s a fine translation of a beloved classic and a beautiful look into a world of pure imagination.