THE POST: riveting thriller and revelatory personal portrait

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in THE POST

The Post may be a docudrama, but it plays as a thriller and an astonishingly insightful portrait of Katharine Graham by Meryl Streep. It’s one of the best movies of the year – and one of the most important.

Essentially, this movie is about a corporate decision, but master storyteller Steven Spielberg sets it up as a tick-tock, high stakes thriller.  Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) must decide whether to publish the Pentagon Papers at a moment when her company is most vulnerable to market forces and government intimidation.  Nothing less than the American principle of freedom of the press hangs in the balance.

The Post also delivers the personal and feminist transformation of Katharine Graham, learning to move beyond her Mad Men Era roles as wife/mother/socialite andto , for the first time, assume real, not titular, command of a business empire.  And she goes All In on the ballsiest gamble any CEO could make.  To say that Streep brings Graham to life is inadequate.  Streep IS Graham. It sometimes seems like Streep can get an Oscar nomination without even making a movie, but this performance is one of Streep’s very best.

Spielberg surrounds Streep with a dazzling cast.  Tom Hanks lowers the pitch of his voice and becomes the swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee.  Tracy Letts gives us another fine performance, this time as Graham’s financial guru Fritz Beebe.  As Bradlee’s second wife Tony, Sarah Paulson ignites a monologue with her piercing eyes.

Bruce Greenwood is quite brilliant as Robert McNamara, Graham’s old friend and the architect (and unwilling sta) of the Pentagon Papers. Greenwood is such an overlooked actor, and he’s so reliably good (he was even good in Wild Orchid, for Chrissakes).

The Pentagon Papers was the 7,000-page secret official history of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Commissioned by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Pentagon Papers chronicled the years of bad decisions by the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and, especially, the deceitfulness of JFK’s and LBJ’s public optimism about the War.  The truth was that the US government knew that the war was unwinnable and that it was only prolonged because nobody knew how to get out while saving face.  The US President in 1971, Richard Nixon, was following the same course, unnecessarily wasting the lives of another 20,000 Americans during his term of office; the ruthless Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger were desperate to keep the Pentagon Papers secret.  A private sector defense expert, Daniel Ellsberg, had access to the Pentagon Papers and sought to have them published, and The Post tells this story, which takes the audience from a jungle firefight into the courtroom of the US Supreme Court.

Baby Boomers will appreciate being transported back to quaint 1971 technology: typewriters, one-page-at-a-time Xerox machines, rotary pay phones, real typeset and ink presses.  (And cigarette smoking in restaurants and cigars in the workplace.)

I’ve also written an essay on some of the historical figures and events depicted in The Post: historical musings on THE POST.

The Post is worth seeing for Streep’s performance, for the history (incredibly important at this moment in the nation’s history) and for the sheer entertainment value.  One of the year’s best.

 

Paul Manafort ripped from the headlines in GET ME ROGER STONE

Roger Stone in GET ME ROGER STONE
So this week’s biggest news has been the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort.  The indictment comes out of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of the Russian hacking of last year’s presidential campaign.   Earlier this year, Netflix released the documentary Get Me Roger Stone, and IMDb bills Paul Manafort third in the “cast”, right behind Roger Stone and Donald Trump.

Get Me Roger Stone is an insightful look at the career of political consultant/provocateur Roger Stone, one of the most outrageous characters on the American political scene.  What’s especially relevant today is that Roger Stone and Paul Manafort together invented a new model of lobbying – where the political consultants who help get a candidate elected to high office, then sell their influence over said elected official.

Even without the Manafort angle, Get Me Roger Stone is an entertaining watch, although you might find Roger Stone himself too loathsome to watch.  Stone will do anything – no matter how duplicitous – to win a political campaign.  He will do anything to bring public attention (i.e., notoriety) upon himself.   And he is utterly unapologetic about both.   Stone is the political world’s version of a pro wrestling villain.

Roger Stone is the unmatched master of high jacking a news cycle with a preposterous smear.  The man has a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, which tells you a whole lot about him.

Get Me Roger Stone also chronicles Stone’s decades-long quest to get Trump to run for president, and then Stone’s role as an unofficial/official/unofficial Trump strategist.  The documentary also touches on a Roger Stone sex scandal.

Anyway, it’s ripped from the headlines, and you can stream it from Netflix Instant.

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE: American history’s greatest mystery with the excitement sucked out

Liam Neeson in MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE

In the sagging docudrama Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Liam Neeson plays the title character – the man at the center of modern American history’s most compelling mystery. The Washington Post source known as Deep Throat was responsible for keeping the Watergate scandal alive until it dethroned Richard Nixon from the presidency. Deep Throat’s identity remained secret for thirty years. It turned out to be Mark Felt, the number two official at the FBI.

Think about it – this was one of the most compelling people in America for thirty years. Deep Throat was clearly one of a handful of men so well-positioned at the center of government power that we would know him, but no one could finger him. The intrigue was brilliantly captured in All the President’s Men, in which Hal Holbrook played Deep Throat.

In Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Neeson plays Felt as a stolid, principled and crafty bureaucratic survivor. Somehow the character just isn’t that personally interesting. The story attempts to flesh him out with a troubled wife (Diane Lane, always superb, even in this thankless role) and a runaway hippie daughter.

As we watch Mark Felt, it gradually becomes apparent that this is a one-note character in a one-note movie. The leaden, pseudo-dramatic soundtrack doesn’t help. Mark Felt also fumbles the chance to get some spark out of Watergate icons John Dean, John Erlichman and John Mitchell. The real-life mystery is so much more interesting than this movie. The movie may be irresistible to Watergate buffs like me, but probably should be resisted.

Mark Felt was directed by Peter Landesman, who recently made the near-masterpiece Parkland. Parkland explores the JFK assassination from the viewpoints of the secondary participants. Mark Felt, however, is not a work of directorial mastery.

Marton Csokas is excellent as weak-willed and overmatched FBI Director L. Patrick Gray.  Nixon handpicked Gray to be his stooge only to leave Gray, as henchman John Erlichman indelibly described, to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind”.

In Loving, Csokas, with pitiless, piercing eyes, was remarkably effective as the Virginia sheriff dead set on enforcing Virginia’s racist statute in the most personally intrusive way. Too often, actors seem to be impersonating Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night when they play racist Southern sheriffs, but Csokas brought originality to that performance.  Here Csokas is able to portray a man of ability and ambition, but not spine.

The great but personally turbulent actor Tom Sizemore showcases his talent once again in the film’s most showy role, a bitter and cynic relic of the FBI’s most sordid skullduggery.  Sizemore brings a magnetic cocktail of menace and humor to the role. Besides Diane Lane, the always welcome Bruce Greenwood and Eddie Marsan show up in minor roles.

Perhaps needless to say, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House has made my list of Longest Movie Title.

Stream of the Week: ZERO DAYS – cyberwar triumph? maybe not

ZERO DAYS
ZERO DAYS

My Stream of the Week is a movie that has actually become MORE topical since its release last year.  The important and absorbing documentary Zero Days traces the story of an incredibly successful cyber attack by two nation states upon another – and its implications. In Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, the centrifuges used to enrich uranium began destroying themselves in 2010. It turned out that these machines were instructed to self-destruct by a computer worm devised by American and Israeli intelligence.

No doubt – this was an amazing technological triumph. Zero Days takes us through a whodunit that is thrilling even for a non-geek audience. We learn how a network that is completely disconnected from the Internet can still be infected. And how cybersecurity experts track down viruses. It’s all accessible and fascinating.

But, strategically, was this really a cyberwarfare victory? We learn just what parts of our lives can be attacked and frozen by computer attacks (Spoiler: pretty much everything). And we learn that this attack has greenlighted cyberwarfare by other nations – including hostile and potentially hostile ones. Zero Days makes a persuasive case that we need to have a public debate – as we have had on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – on the use of this new kind of weaponry.

And here’s why it is more topical today.  Since Zero Days’ release last year, we have endured the successful Russian cyberattack on the US election process.  And we face an unpredictable foe in North Korea, and our only practical protection against North Korea’s nuclear threat may be our own preemptive cyberattacks.

Director Alex Gibney is one our very, very best documentarians. He won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, and he made the superb Casino Jack: The United States of Money, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Going Clear: The Prison of Belief and Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine.

Gibney’s specialty is getting sources on-camera that have the most intimate knowledge of his topic. In Zero Days, he pulls out a crew of cybersecurity experts, the top journalist covering cyberwarfare, leaders of both Israeli and American intelligence and even someone who can explain the Iranian perspective. Most impressively, Gibney has found insiders from the NSA who actually worked on this cyber attack (and prepared others).

Zero Days is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Cinequest: THE TEACHER

THE TEACHER
THE TEACHER

In the superb drama The Teacher, it’s the mid-1980s and the Iron Curtain is still defining Czechoslovakia; (The Teacher is a Czech movie in the Slovak language). The title character’s position as a high school teacher makes her a gatekeeper to the children’s futures, and she’s unaccountable because she’s a minor Communist Party functionary. Wielding blatant academic favoritism and even overt blackmail, she uses the advantage of her political status for her own petty benefit – coercing shopping errands, car rides, pastries and other favors from the parents of her students.  Finally, she causes so much harm to one student that some of the parents rebel and seek her ouster.

Will the other parents support them?  What of the parents who benefit from the regime?  And what of the majority of the parents who must decide whether to risk their own futures?  The risk is real: the regime has already reassigned one parent, a scientist, to a menial job after his wife had defected.

The Teacher benefits from a brilliant, award-winning performance from Zuzana Mauréry in the title role.  What makes this character especially loathsome is that she’s not just heavy-handed, but grossly manipulative. Mauréry is a master at delivering reasonable words with both sweet civility and the unmistakable menace of the unspoken “or else”.

The acting from the entire company is exceptional, especially from Csongor Kassai, Martin Havelka and the Slovak director Peter Bebjak as aggrieved parents. Writer Petr Jarchovský has created textured, authentic characters. Director Jan Hrebejk not only keeps the story alive but adds some clever filmmaking fluorishes as he moves the story between flashbacks and the present.

The Teacher is one of the highlights of Cinequest 2017.

Stream of the Week: THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT – a crazy dictator makes for a crazy story

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT
THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT

The documentary The Lovers and the Despot tells one of those you-would-never-believe-it-if it-were-made-up stories.  The late North Korean nutcase Kim Jong-Il, dissatisfied with the cinematic element in his propaganda machine, sought an upgrade by KIDNAPPING a top South Korean director and his movie star wife.

The story of the kidnapping and their escape spans two decades and is a real Cold War thriller.  One interesting aspect is that there was some question as to whether the two were actually kidnapped or instead defected – after all, the director’s career was in a downturn in South Korea and was ultimately resurrected in the North.  But, come one, who escapes from South Korea to North Korea?

The proof of their kidnapping is both convincing and mind-boggling.  The craziness of the North Korean regime has created such anti-communist paranoia in South Korea that the kidnapping vs defection question is still unresolved for some – and that’s crazy in and of itself.

The Lovers and the Despot will make good companion piece to Under the Sun, the documentary expose of Korea under its current Great Madman Leader, Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un.

The Lovers and the Despot is now available streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and cable and satellite TV on demand.

It’s Election Eve…

THE WAR ROOM
THE WAR ROOM

It’s the eve of the Presidential election, and we need to find some relief from the current soul-sucking campaign in historical or fictional politics.  So here are three great movies about political campaigns:

  • The Candidate (1970):  Probably the best political movie of all time.  Robert Redford stars as an activist ideologue who resists following his father’s path into electoral office.  Once he’s in, he embraces winning with the help of a savvy consultant (Peter Boyle).   Anyone who has run a campaign will relate to this roller coaster.   Especially if you’ve set up an event with a bad sound system.  Or if you’ve been late to live television appearance.  Or if you’ve swiped an opponent’s literature when door-hanging.  Some scenes were shot on location in the Bay Area, including a banquet in a San Francisco hotel and a speech in San Jose’s Eastridge Mall.  The Candidate is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • The Last Hurrah (1958):  The master director John Ford is famous for westerns, but this portrait of an embattled incumbent is a classic of political cinema.  Spencer Tracy plays the leader of an urban political machine. He’s got years of accomplishments and a machine in his favor, but his newspaper-owning antagonist is running an empty suit against him in a campaign increasingly fought on the newfangled medium of television.  He’s been so successful for so long that his ward heelers have become complacent, and he’s smelling the campaign getting away from him.  The Last Hurrah is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • The War Room (1993): the brilliant documentary of the FIRST successful Clinton for president campaign. We get to watch from the inside as the first Baby Boomer takes out a sitting President from the Greatest Generation, aided by the new masters of the spin and the newly emerged 24-hour news cycle. Remember – this was the campaign steered by the on-again-off-again-on-again whims of H. Ross Perot. What seemed at the time as cut throat tactics are quaint today. And viewers will become wistful for time when you could kill a news story, no matter how sensational, if it were unverified or untrue. The War Room is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Instant, iTunes and Hulu (subscription).

Plus tonight, Turner Classic Movies brings us two brilliant political documentaries:

  • Primary documents the Wisconsin Democratic primary election campaign in 1960. This was a key stepping stone in John F. Kennedy’s road to the White House because it was a chance for him to demonstrate that he appealed to voters outside the Northeast. Kennedy’s rival Hubert Humphrey was favored because Wisconsin neighbors Humphrey’s home state of Minnesota. Primary is both a time capsule of 1960 politics and an inside look at the Kennedy family unleashed in a campaign. There’s an amazing scene where Humphrey appeals to a handful of flinty farmers in a school gym – he’s giving his all and he ain’t getting much back. Only 60 minutes long, Primary has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The great documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who went on to direct Monterey Pop and The War Room, shot, edited and recorded sound for Primary.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk – the documentary Oscar winner from 1984. It’s the real story behind the 2008 Sean Penn narrative Milk – and with the original witnesses. If you pay attention, The Times of Harvey Milk can teach you everything from how to win a local campaign to how to build a societal movement. One of the best political movies ever. And watch for the dog poop scene!

    THE LAST HURRAH
    THE LAST HURRAH

AQUARIUS: spirit, thy name is Sonia Braga

Sonia Braga in AQUARIUS
Sonia Braga in AQUARIUS

In the Brazilian character-driven drama Aquarius, Sonia Braga plays Clara, the last owner of a beachfront condo who hasn’t sold out to a developer who owns the rest of the condos.  The conflict is between Clara, who refuses to sell and those her want her to.  But Aquarius is really about Clara, and it takes its time setting up her character; it’s 26 minutes before we even see the developers.   We must understand her to understand her motivation – and her will.

Aquarius moves through scenes with a lifeguard at the beach, with girlfriends at club, at family parties,  not to move the plot, but to invest in revealing aspects of Clara’s character.  Having conquered cancer, lost her husband, raised children and built an artistic career, Clara has some mileage on her – enough to know what she wants and needs. Having earned the authority to live her life as she pleases, Clara is a wilful free spirit.  And, as everyone finds out, she is absolutely fearless.

It’s a career-capping performance for Sonia Braga, still luminous 40 years after Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands.  Mid movie, there’s a scene when Clara’s adult children try to have an awkward conversation about the financial benefits of selling the apartment.  She doesn’t make it easy for them, and their long-submerged feelings about their father and their mother surface.  With piercing observations and cold-eyed disappointment, Clara is as masterful over her children as when they were infants.  It’s hard to imagine a better movie scene this year.  Braga is brilliant.

The young Brazilian television actor Humberto Carrão is exceptional as Clara’s ever smiling foil Diego, whose youth and punctilious civility mask a capacity to engage in any tactic, even very dirty tricks.

I viewed Aquarius at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Aquarius is critical of the political status quo, and the Brazilian government’s refusal to submit it for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar has created a controversy detailed in this New York Times article.

DVD/Stream of the Week: WEINER – behind the punchline

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in WEINER
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in WEINER

This week’s recommendation couldn’t be any timelier, given Anthony Weiner’s disgraceful collapse into yet another texting scandal, resulting his getting dumped by his wife, Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin.  Don’t miss the political documentary Weiner, probably the best documentary of the year. It also provokes some reflection on the media in this age. It’s on my Best Movies of 2016 – So Far.

You may remember Anthony Weiner as the politician forced out of Congress in a sexting scandal. A couple of years later, he tried to make a comeback by running for mayor of New York City. Weiner is the inside story of that campaign, which self-immolated when the sexting scandal popped up again. Weiner is a marvelously entertaining chronicle of the campaign, a character study of Anthony Weiner himself and an almost voyeuristic peek into Weiner’s marriage to another political star, Huma Abedin.

Co-director Josh Kriegman served as Weiner’s Congressional chief of staff and left politics for filmmaking. When Weiner was contemplating the run for mayor, Kriegman asked to shadow him in the campaign, and Weiner agreed. Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg shot 400 hours of backstage footage and caught some searing moments of human folly, triumph and angst.

In office, eight-term New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was a firebrand, pugnacious and a master debater with a vicious sense of humor, always eager to mix it up. He is married to Huma Abedin, a close Hilary Clinton advisor often described as “Hilary’s other daughter”. Huma is as reserved as Anthony is ebullient, and her own distinguished career in politics has been behind the scenes. He lives for the limelight, but she is uncomfortable in it.

Anthony begins his comeback with brutally painful media launch. The press is in a complete feeding frenzy – all revisiting the scandal and nothing else. One of the highlights of Weiner is a montage of talking heads reviling Weiner, including Donald Trump, who bellows, “We don’t want any perverts in New York City”.

But when Anthony goes on the campaign trail, the electorate begins to really respond to his passion and feistiness. Weiner unexpectedly surges into the lead 10 weeks to go. We are treated to a first-class procedural and see what only political pros see – the banal opening of a campaign office, rehearsing speeches, shooting commercials, dialing for dollars.

But then the scandal re-opens when a publicity-seeking bimbo releases a photo of Anthony’s penis that Weiner had texted her. We see his Communications Director as the new scandal unfolds in real-time, her eyes becoming lifeless; my day job for the last thirty years has been in politics, and I have gotten some bad news, but nothing like this.

Amazingly, we see Anthony calling Huma and telling her. When the screenshot of Anthony’s penis shot goes viral, we watch as Hums see it for the first time on the Internet, and her anger builds into rage. Anthony finally kicks out the camera.

New York Post prints headlines like “Weiner: I’ll Stick It Out” and “Obama Beats Weiner”. Anthony tells his shell-shocked and pissed off staff “nobody died”, but nobody’s buying it. Anthony has masterfully redefined himself to be more than the punchline once, but the second set of revelations make him indelibly a punchline – and no one can come back from that. From behind the camera, Kriegman plaintively asks Weiner.”Why did you let me film this?”.

Anthony’s pollster gives him the bad news: “There’s no path anymore to get to a runoff” and “So this is a solo flight”. The smell of death is about the campaign at the end, but Anthony is in “never quit” phase.

Anthony’s best moment is when he is obligated to face a hostile neighborhood meeting in the Bronx neighborhood of City Island. He knows that he is doing poorly there, and there aren’t many voters out there anyway, but he keeps his head high and delivers a courageous effort.

Anthony’s worst moment may be when he is re-watching himself in a mutual evisceration of a TV host on YouTube. He is relishing the combat, but Huma, behind him, is appalled by Anthony’s Pyrrhic victory. He smugly thinks that’s he won the verbal firefight, but Huma just says, “It’s bad”. She’s right.

I saw Weiner at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) at a screening with co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Kriegman said that he “intended to show the humanity behind the headline – the nuance that is Anthony”. Steinberg noted that “the most exposed are the least revealed”. As of the SFIFF screening on April 23, Anthony Weiner had to date declined to watch Weiner. In Weiner, Anthony looks back after the campaign and ruefully sums it up, “I lied and I had a funny name”.

Weiner has more than its share of forehead-slapping moments and is often funny and always captivating. It’s almost certainly the year’s best documentary and one of best films of 2016, period.  Weiner is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and DirecTV.

UNDER THE SUN: a wackadoodle regime subverts its own propaganda

A scene from Vitaly Mansky's UNDER THE SUN, playing at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21 - May 5, 2016.
UNDER THE SUN.  Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.

The subversive documentary Under the Sun is a searing insight into totalitarian North Korean society, all from government-approved filming that tells a different story than the wackadoodle dictatorship intended.

The North Korean regime gave filmmaker Vitaly Mansky permission to film the story of a young girl who is training to take part in one of North Korea’s ritualized propaganda spectacles – when children “join” the Korean Children’s Union on the birthday of the current Supreme Leader’s father.  The script and the filming locations were all assigned by the North Korean regime and all film reviewed by their censors.  But Mansky was able to conceal and preserve the outtakes – and those moments are devastatingly revelatory about life on North Korea.

What we see is a grim society, virtually devoid of vibrancy and joy.  Families are posed briefly mechanically and unsmilingly for ritual family photos in front of flower-bedecked giant portraits of the Leaders.  The streets are drab and empty of vehicle traffic even at rush hour.  Mansky shows us surreptitious glimpses of his minders and even of boys raiding garbage cans.  There’s a lot of regimentation depicted in Under the Sun and lots of people drearily filing to and fro.  Sometimes it gets tiresome – but that’s the point.

Everyone is conscripted to perform and watch phony staged spectacles of the grandest scale.  The rapturous crowds shown on TV contrast with the stoic crowds forced to view the televised events.  North Korea must have the world’s most professional event planners per capita.

Most chillingly, we see a class where 6-year-olds are taught to hate Japanese and Americans.  This appears to be a scene that the North Koreans INTENTIONALLY included in the movie.

The beautiful irony of Under the Sun is that, in trying to tell a story about the best of their society, the North Koreans actually reveal their worst.  I saw Under the Sun earlier this year at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival.  Under the Sun opens July 29 at the Lee 4-Star in San Francisco.