Oscars 2018: Breaking News

The Post

This is a weird one. It’s clearly the most Oscar-baitey movie one could imagine, nearly being the platonic ideal of awards begging. It’s also fiercely mediocre.

The Post has a pedigree that should have a broad enough appeal, backed by gobs of talent, to be “good” at the very least. Directed by Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. These are people who seem able to make good films by accident. And the movie they’ve all made isn’t bad. It’s just… intensely average.

The story follows the goings-on at The Washington Post in the early 1970s, during the media coverage of the Pentagon Papers leak about the Vietnam War. The film closely follows Katharine Graham (Streep) who has come into ownership of the paper after the death of her husband, and Ben Bradlee (Hanks), the editor of The Post. Of the two, Graham has the more interesting story to tell. She’s a woman in a man’s world, holding a career position she never trained for or wanted, trying to push boundaries in a crisis.

And this movie is not her story.

Bradlee is a veteran newspaperman who has years of experience at what is, at the time, a local paper. Here comes a huge story that pushes the bounds of government power over the press, and even goes to the Supreme Court. This is a bit more that than anything else, but most of the tension in those events was with the New York Times, who broke the story first, and was fighting for the rights of the press to tell the truth.

No, The Post is the story of Hanks and Streep as they pretty much do their jobs as they want to, whilefacing stress over possibly losing investors. No one changes their positions on how the paper should be run. They just get scooped on a big story, and end up doing their jobs. Really. The real stakes are all off-screen, dealing with another paper. The story has no idea what it should be paying attention to because it’s already dealing with second tier of a larger story.

There’s also very little character work. Anyone who’s supposed to be important ends up with an essentialist monologue to tell you everything you need to know about them in one “for your consideration” moment. Hanks delivers a speech about how he’s driven by the freedom of the press, Streep gets a moment to wax about the specifics of how she feels about the company as her family legacy, and painfully under-used Sarah Paulson (as Tony Bradlee, Ben Bradlee’s wife) delivers what could best be described as “best supporting monologue”, talking about how difficult it is being a woman with power that no one wants her to have, selling me on a movie that The Post distinctly isn’t.

The story isn’t the only problem here. Spielberg doesn’t really do anything interesting as a director for the entire film. There are references and nods to some previous films, but just enough that you know there’s someone at the wheel, and not enough for them to add any original spin to the presentation. And then there’s the two lead’s performances. Hanks is either passable or laughable, depending on how sold you are on his gristle-chewing accent. But Streep is Just Streep for the entire movie. There’s never a moment when she loses herself in the character. It’s just us watching Meryl compete for an Oscar, and that may be the most disappointing thing of all.

This movie was rushed through production in order to make a statement about the power of the media in the face of presidential corruption in light of the election of Donald Trump. But even that political statement doesn’t feel right. The current political climate is new ground, with various aspects of our checks-and-balances system switching sides and splitting within branches of government. The story of The Post heavily relies on a nostalgic sense of duty, history, and tradition.

Whew. Still with me? Guess what, here’s a twist ending. I didn’t hate this movie. It was fine. I watched the whole thing without disappearing into Facebook. It held my attention the whole time (well, most of the time). It’s just that the best way to describe it is fine. There’s a lot to complain about because there’s a lot this movie could have been, and very little that it ended up being. There’s nothing I hated about it, but in a sea of talent, there also wasn’t a single thing that I loved. It just doesn’t do what it intended to do (story-wise, acting-wise, and, presumably Oscar-wise) but it does enough.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (deserves Lead Actress and Supporting Actor)

Here’s a movie that takes a different approach in disseminating a news story, and leaking information about corruption. I have such mixed feelings over this movie. Such strong, conflicting emotions. Argh.

This is the story of Mildred Hayes trying to get the local police department to actually investigate her daughter’s rape and subsequent murder. Heads up. While the act is never shown there is a lot of discussion of it and the specifics of the situation which can be hard to hear. The Ebbing police claim to have hit a wall and have put the case off to the side, leaving Mildred without closure or justice. So she rents, you guessed it, three billboards and puts up a message explicitly calling out the Chief by name. Small-town details are exposed and character-work ensues.

So the main cast that will get talked about are:

  • Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes
  • Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon

Just to be upfront, McDormand and Rockwell are tremendous. McDormand originally didn’t want to take the role as she thought herself too old to play a mother of a teenage daughter. Thank goodness she changed her mind, because it is a treat to watch her so perfectly act her way through such a meaty role. The plot is heartbreaking, but the movie has enough dark humor that it far more deserves a comedy classification than, say, Get Out. Absolute worst case, no matter what, Frances McDormand is amazing and worth witnessing.

Sam Rockwell is also a sight. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but I usually see him in slighter, smarmier rolls. But this Sam Rockwell is like Rockwell on Moon. He’s tortured and nuanced and all sorts of contradictions vying for balance.

The story, as I mentioned, has a surprising amount of humor. It also takes a number of twists, going off in directions that I hadn’t expected. I had no interest in this, along with I, Tonya, but once they began they completely captured my attention. Bravo.

Now that I’ve said all that, there’s some bad news. This movie has blind spots and issues when it comes to race like whoa. Officer Jason Dixon is a dumb, violent cop. He throws people out of windows when he’s angry, but he also assaults and imprisons people when he’s not. Especially if they’re black. Dixon is racist as fuck and the movie knows it. But the movie also goes on to frame his part in the story as some sort of redemption arc. Which it’s not. What ends up happening is Dixon aims his hapless, uncontrolled penchant for violence in alignment with Mildred Hayes’ mission for justice and retribution. And that’s it. His crime against Mildred is essentially ignoring her daughter’s case. His crimes against the town’s black citizens encompasses  harassment, false imprisonment, assault, possibly attempted murder, and countless civil rights violations. And he does not once apologize to a single black person for his explicitly racially motivated crusade. The only two people he apologizes to are Mildred and Red Welby (played by Caleb Landry Jones), a white man who rents the billboards, whom Dixon assaulted. In fact, there are two black characters that assist Mildred with the billboards because they know just how corrupt and racist the police force is. Yet as soon as Dixon comes around in solidarity with Mildred, they are never seen again. Possibly because that would have meant confronting the loose thread of his unaddressed criminally violent racism. It’s so distracting that I never once didn’t want Dixon and his boss , Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to die. I was just weighing whether Hayes going Punisher on them would be satisfying enough, or if I wanted a Final Destination scenario to play out in the police station.

Wiloughby also has his own, truncated, redemption story. A redemption that comes despite keeping the incompetent and criminal Dixon on the force throughout his career. These two white racist cops who had hobbies of either attacking black people for sport, or covering up such attacks out of habit, are supposed to be sympathetic by the end of the film. Sympathetic in spite of the fact that neither one apologizes for any of these crimes. In spite of the fact that, of the two, only Dixon ever speaks directly to a black person, and even then it’s a superior office on the police force, to whom he shows no respect.

This movie wants you to relate to, if not outright root for, racist garbage people who abuse their power.

When this movie ended I had two strong and distinct feelings. One was awe for the two aforementioned actors. The other was utter disgust for the script. I also had two lingering thoughts after the movie ended. One was if there was a parallel revenge movie happening in the background, with a cast of all the wronged black people aiming to take revenge on Dixon. The other was if Mildred Hayes had been just as angry and outspoken and active, but black, would she have been killed by Dixon or Willoughby and left on the side of the road, another case not to be investigated.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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