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FILM REVIEW: “The Post” and “Molly’s Game” Suffer From Different Setbacks

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"The Post" is the third film in a thematic trilogy by director Steven Spielberg, in which history lessons are re-contextualized as contemporary parables.

In "Lincoln," the president's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, paralleled Barack Obama's ever-polarizing efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act. Then, "Bridge of Spies" evoked the terrifying paranoia of an America still hungover from McCarthyism. Set in 1957, the film almost nostalgically recollects a time in which Americans could, however irrationally, be united against a common enemy, which is unthinkable today.

And now "The Post" uses the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1971 as a metaphor for two recent calamities: Hillary Clinton's loss of the presidential election in 2016 to Donald J. Trump, and the president's ongoing war on the media, most famously his dismissing as fake news any story that isn't flattering to his regime.

Leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, played in "The Post" by Matthew Rhys, the Pentagon Papers refer to a study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) to provide a historical overview of the Vietnam War. Thousands of pages long, the study proved that the government was lying about the nature of its presence in Vietnam for decades, under the guiding hand of multiple presidents.

The Nixon administration obtained a federal court injunction against the New York Times for printing portions of the classified study, citing the Espionage Act of 1917. A form of press was successfully stifled, then, leaving the Washington Post an opportunity to find the documents and challenge the federal government's authority to control its own coverage. Does the Washington Post follow suit and risk its own then-fledgling status? This motor of suspense drives "The Post."

In Spielberg's film, Nixon is meant to remind the audience of Trump, while the Washington Post's first female publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), serves as a stand-in for Clinton. Respectively, either of these allusions might've soared, but taken together they are stiflingly schematic.

The Nixon-Trump equivocation is largely successful because Spielberg relies on documentary footage, offering proof in the pudding. Nixon's onscreen admonishments are taken from actual recordings of the president, which parallel many of Trump's flamboyant embraces of authoritarianism. And Nixon's abuses of power are chilling for their comparative quaintness in light of current events.

But the Graham-as-Clinton narrative is obnoxious, a case of a filmmaker killing a scenario's dramatic essence so as to preach to his choir. Throughout the film, Graham struggles to turn the Washington Post into a publicly owned institution, and Spielberg lingers on board meetings in which her voice is drowned out by men who live by a pre-"mansplaining" code. In case we miss the point, repetitive speeches are delivered by characters who explain to the audience Graham's struggle to be heard in a male world, while John Williams' score drones reverently in the background.

Streep, who probably won an Oscar for this performance during rehearsals, endlessly telegraphs Graham's nervousness and need, foregrounding the notion of a competent, potentially revolutionary woman who's suppressed by patriarchy. Streep isn't bad, but she's self-conscious and unsurprising as usual: the actor as dutiful student.

At the film's low point, Graham confronts a throng of admirers — after the Supreme Court upholds the press's right to print the Pentagon Papers — in compositions that are bathed in heavenly light and populated solely by women. All that's missing is a sign proclaiming that #i'mwithher. This backwards-looking continuity trivializes the immediacy of the past-as-ongoing-present, cheapening the Washington Post's dilemma with sanctimony.

“Molly’s Game”
  • “Molly’s Game”

"Molly's Game," however, inspires newfound appreciation for Spielberg's craftsmanship. For all of Spielberg's sentimentality, he still can stage a crackling procedural, particularly when fetishizing typesetting and copy editing and the all-around gumption of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Spielberg can make language come alive, which is more than can be said for writer Aaron Sorkin, who's making his debut as director with "Molly's Game."

Sorkin's film is an adaptation of "Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker" by Molly Bloom, played in the film by Jessica Chastain. The plot is all there in the book's title, which offers a recipe for celebrity gossip and backstage avarice, though it's amazing how dull Sorkin can render big money and symbolic sex. Sorkin entombs the film in an elaborate flashback structure that kills any sense of stakes and momentum, while sticking Molly with an embarrassingly trite coming-of-age arc.

The creator of TV shows such as "Sports Night," "The West Wing," and "The Newsroom," as well as the screenwriter of films such "The Social Network" and "Steve Jobs," Sorkin is known for sharp, socially conscious dialogue, but "Molly's Game" underlines just how important a director is to making words sing. Sorkin approaches his (just so-so, in this case) dialogue as a means to a self-justified end, rather than as a note within a symphony. S

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