Review: “The Post”

Most of the plot of “The Post” takes place over a few days in 1971 when the Washington Post released parts of the  Pentagon Papers, detailing what was going on behind the scenes in the government and military before and during the Vietnam War.

Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the paper’s publisher, with great sensitivity and nuance. She conveys so much with a slight raising of an eyebrow or trembling of fingers. Tom Hanks plays the hard-driving Post editor Ben Bradlee with appropriate business-like bluster, although letting his personal feelings show in some scenes when he is alone with Graham or his wife.

I was a child living in rural New England when the Pentagon papers were released. We were somewhat sheltered from the protests and intrigues about the war, but there were certain things about that time that I remember and that resonated for me while watching the film.

First was how much I admire Katharine Graham, who was a woman in a position of power in a field dominated by men and also dealing with the overwhelmingly male realms of finance and government. There are several scenes in the film that accentuate the uniqueness of her position in that timeframe. After the death of her father and her husband, she inherited the job of publisher of the Post and succeeded in bringing the paper from being a local Washington one to national prominence.  The Pentagon Papers story was a major part of that rise in stature, which continues to this day. The Washington Post has been breaking major stories on the inner workings of the current White House and on the Russian influence investigation.

Second was where my brain jumps every time I hear the name Daniel Ellsberg – to the phrase “Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.” I remember news coverage after the Papers came out about efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had been the source of the secret study to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist had been broken into by an FBI and a CIA agent to try to find materials with which to blackmail Ellsberg and this was covered in the news media.

I hope that no one is breaking into offices in the present day, but it is a stark reminder of how chilling it is to have the government try to interfere with the freedom of the press. Toward the end of the film, there is a quote from the 6-3 majority Supreme Court decision that allowed the Times and the Post and other papers to continue to publish stories from the Pentagon Papers. [What follows is probably not the exact quote from the movie, but it is taken from the concurrence of Justice Black. The Supreme Court document can be found here.]

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. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

I hope people will think of this every time the President denigrates the press or says that a member of the press is lying when they are actually reporting or says that the press is the enemy.

The United States needs a free press today as much as it always has. It is an absolute necessity for the health of our nation and our democracy. I thank director Stephen Spielberg and everyone involved in “The Post” for the timely reminder.
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Florence Foster Jenkins

A family friend when I was a child often said, “Well, bless her heart,” whenever someone did something well-meaning or wholeheartedly.

Meryl Streep discussing Florence Foster Jenkins, whom she portrays in the new film of the same name, says that people at the time had one of two reactions to hearing Florence sing, either “bless her” or laughter.

Both of these are shown in the film.

Florence was a piano prodigy as a child, who lost her ability to play due to a physical condition. She continued to love music and, in adulthood. became an important musical philanthropist in New York City.

Florence liked to sing with heart and emotion. What she didn’t realize was that her physical malady had adversely affected both her ability to sing on pitch and her recognition that she was not singing on pitch. In order not to hurt her, her husband and her friends protected her from finding out the truth.

I love Meryl Streep’s work. She always brings depth into her portrayals as she does here. As a singer myself, although a choral soprano rather than a coloratura who can toss off the “Queen of the Night” aria at the drop of a hat, I was amazed at Streep’s ability to sing as Florence did – almost, but not quite up to the pitch.

On Fandango, the movie is listed as both a comedy and a drama. While there are moments of laughter, I can’t think of the film as a comedy. I think it is better characterized as a reflection on the power of music, service, friendship, and love in the face of adversity.

Florence, bless your heart. Meryl, thank you for bringing this powerful story to us.

Review: Into the Woods

When our daughters were children, one of their favorite videos to watch was the the Great Performance’s recording of the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods. For a while when T was very young, we only let her watch the first act, deeming the second act, which goes into the aftermath of “happily ever after,” too dark for her – until her four-year-older-and-wiser sister filled her in on the rest of the play and we let her watch the whole performance.  All of which gives you insights into the kind of family we are…

At any rate, long before the current spate of fractured fairy tale mash-ups, there was the brilliance of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods.  Besides uncounted viewings of the original Broadway cast, my daughters got to see the 2002 Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams, for which we also owned the CDs, for singing along on long car rides. We have also seen local productions, most recently at the CIder Mill.  So, I had high hopes and a few misgivings about the new movie version of our family favorite.

Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie very much. While there had to be some cuts to shorten the length from the original theatrical production, they were made very judiciously, with only a few song/dialogue cuts that we missed. We had to admit that, while we enjoy the reprise of the Princes’ “Agony,” it was better for the flow of the movie to have cut it, especially when the first act version of it is so charmingly (over)played as it is in the film.

There are a number of songs performed by an ensemble of characters and I thought that the filming of these, moving among the characters in their different settings was very effective, especially the opening version of “Into the Woods.”  I also thought it was a great choice to use the sung finale music over the first part of the credits.

My favorite performers were the three main female characters. Meryl Streep made a very convincing witch, aided by cinematic effects that let her appear and disappear in a swirl. Working for a camera instead of a large theater, she was able to show more subtlety than she would have been able to in a theater. Anna Kendrick made a wonderful CInderella. We especially liked that “On the Steps of the Palace” took place on the steps of the palace, rather than in the woods, giving her the chance to sing about her decision as it was happening, rather than reflecting on it later, as she does in the stage version.  Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife carries a lot of the heart and lesson-learning of the film. One hopes that this role, which won a Tony for Joanna Gleason in the original Broadway cast, will win some awards for Ms. Blunt.

The real star of the movie for me is Stephen Sondheim, whose clever and sophisticated lyrics and music make the whole production lively and touching, ably assisted by James Lapine, who wrote the book/screenplay. Because I know the show well, the clever lines were familiar to me. I was sitting next to someone in the theater who did not know the musical at all. It was fun listening to him react to the wordplay.

I’m hoping to be able to see the movie again while it is in the theaters and will definitely want to add it to my DVD collection when it becomes available. I hope other people will enjoy it as much as I did.

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