Friday, January 12, 2018

"Picking At 'The Post' (Conclusion)"

Venn Diagram:

All old people do this.

I am an old person.

So what the heck do you expect?

I try to firmly withstand its septuagenarian draw.  But it’s no good.  Its magnetic pull is as strong as that third slice of pizza.  The best I can do is admit to it up front and let the tortilla chips – which I am also unable to resist – fall where they may. 

What do all old people do?  They insistent proclaim that

“The old stuff was better.”

In keeping with yesterday’s writing’s assertion that All The Presidents Men was (an is) superior to The Post.

Oscar nominations involve only the pictures of that year.  2017’s The Post will not be competing with 1976’s All The President’s Men.  The Post should be grateful for that reprieve.  If they’d gone “head to head”, I’d predict a punishing third-round knockout by All The President’s Men, the groggy Post lugged back to its corner, face-savingly mumbling,

“We were good for 2017.”

You cannot penalize a movie for the story it tells.  One movie tells one story; another movie, another.  Still, “One-on-One”, All The President’s Men chronicles a more powerful, dramatic narrative.

I am not discussing the ultimate stakes involved here.  In both movies, seminal constitutional issues are on the line.  In The Post, it’s the Freedom of the Press.  In All The President’s Men, it is the question of whether the President of the United States is above the law.

Big doin’s. 

Both worthy of a movie.


Contrasting All the President’s Men wherein the future of Nixon’s presidency is its first and foremost consideration, in The Post – by its own prioritization –

You have a seemingly “in-over-her-head” female publisher facing an unavoidable crisis.  You have the imminent future of a family-owned newspaper.  You have the competitive rivalry between the Washington Post and The New York Times

And you have the volatile issue of “Freedom of the Press.”

Never before has the “Free Press” concern run fourth in the “National Significance” Sweepstakes.  (In Constitutional days, ”Freedom of Speech” was originally the Third Amendment.  But that’s as low as it got.  This one beats it by a notch.)

So there’s that – what each movie is essentially focusing on.  In which, All The President’s Men resonates higher.  (If “comparative resonance” is a measurable category.)  

Then – and herein lies the disparitous margin of victory – there is the way each film goes about its narrative business.

From beginning to end, All the President’s Men involves an excruciating effort at ferreting out a carefully covered-up story involving hours of tedious “Library Time”, the ubiquitous “working the phones”, the endless knocking on doors, and coaxing terrified witnesses to step up and reveal “on the record” what they know, underscored by the drumbeat direction of “Deep Throat”, urging them to unwaveringly “Follow the money.”  

It is deservedly beyond dispute that All The President’s Men is the finest depiction of shoe-leathering “journalism in the trenches” ever depicted in the movies.

By contrast, here’s The Post.

A reporter immediately suspects who is disseminating the Pentagon Papers and after three dead-end phone calls before “Bingo!”, Daniel Ellsberg gives him the Pentagon Papers.

Not quite as compelling, is it?  (In the screenplay, referencing following the trail to the furtive Ellsberg the reporter himself admits, “The bread crumbs weren’t too hard to follow.”  (Versus Woodward and Bernstein’s working themselves into exhaustion.) 

There’s an enormous difference between a story in which the various pieces of the puzzle must be painstakingly assembled, where relevant witnesses require delicate cajoling to speak up and a self-proclaimed “Whistle Blower” eager to spill the beans to the newspapers.

Two differently weighted stories, one, dramatic and fascinating, the other, absorbing if you are tracking Katharine Graham’s evolving “rising to the occasion” but otherwise, we are watching hardworking journalists, under enormous time pressure, piecing together a voluminous document without the benefit of page numbers.

I will engage in few “actor comparisons”, other than to assert that Jason Robarts (as Ben Bradlee) is a man, and Tom Hanks (in the same role) is the kid who dances on pianos with Robert Loggia.  A sentence of “Worthy Mention” for All The President’s Men’s “Honor Roll” of some of the finest “character actors” of its era, including Hal Holbrook, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden and Jane Alexander.  Plus, Alan Pakula’s workmanlike direction, sensibly in tune with the storyline’s mundane journalistic “legwork.”  Not even talking about the “Lead Actors” (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) submerging their vaunted “Star Power” into an effective symbiotic collaboration.

Meryl Streep’s borderline mesmerizing performance is a Master’s Class in “Creating a Character.”  But otherwise, there is no comparison.

All The President’s Men is indisputably better.

And yet, even with this ironclad argument in All The President’s Men’s favor,

I will still be accused of living in the past.

What can I tell you?  Give me a worthy contemporary offering, and I shall lavish it with praise.


(Credit Where Credit is Due:  My favorite line from The Post?  When a reporter informs Bradlee it will take him a couple of days to write up the story, Bradlee sardonically retorts, “Well… what if we pretend you’re a reporter and not a novelist?”) 

(Follow-up Observation:  In a TV documentary, sponsored bizarrely by the Spielberg movie itself, a 2017 Daniel Ellsberg admits disappointment that the release of the Pentagon Papers had not, as he had imagined, turned the people against the war.  Isn’t that weird?  A movie, sponsoring a documentary undercutting its own historical importance?)

Final Thought  (I promise):  I could not help thinking, “What if the Pentagon Papers, or its like, were released to the public today?  In this “Two Truths” environment, would it have any mind-changing consequence whatsoever, or would it, as with all factual realities, simply drive the opposing sides further apart?)

Over and out.   


Wendy M. Grossman said...

In answer to your final question, we actually have some basis for comparison: Edward Snowden's revelations, which Ellsberg himself has appeared to view as comparable. Snowden's revelations sparked much greater awareness of privacy issues in the US; forced a legal review in the UK (which had the effect of *legalizing* a lot of the stuff Snowden complained about, but you could argue it's better to have a legal framework and an attempt at oversight); and pushed the EU into adopting stronger data protection and privacy laws that it might have otherwise. So, here right now, in the years 2013-2017 Snowden has had an effect.

I would argue Ellsberg had an effect, too. It may not have turned people against the war (I'm a little too young to remember that accurately; there were plenty of people against the war in any case), but it *did* make people less trusting in the US government. That has both good and bad ramifications, but it was a definite change.


Ali Semchuck said...

As an aging American I understand a tendency to long for "the good old days" as we remember them. Movies and television shows these days cannot compare to works in the past for many reasons. But mainly the issue rests with the changing landscape of this nation -- not necessarily for the better.
I recall seeing movies like Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston in 1959 at a theater in downtown Chicago on a field trip with my 6th-grade class. I also remember seeing The Ten Commandments in 1956; The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959; and Exodus in 1960 at the theater with my parents.
These days if movies don't have scenes with graphic sex, violence and substance abuse, they don't make it at the box office. So producers cater to their target audiences, even if in their heart they would prefer a more quality product.
We now live in a drug culture, where any sense of morality has waned. The new heroes are rap artists whose song lyrics talk about killing.
Nowadays people file lawsuits simply as a means of drawing a paycheck rather than actually getting a job and working for wages.
Because the Unites States is on that downward spiral, the movies reflect life.
So yes, All the President's Men was better, but not only because of the subject matter, but more aptly because of the evolving film making considerations.
Back in the '50s, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds. These days on TV they would appear practically naked together in the shower.
It's in no means a better world, but it is the situation that we face on a daily basis.
One of the better lines I heard on the TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actually came in a scene with actor and rapper Ice-T. An immigrant to the United States commented that this is a "free country." And Ice-T's character said the U.S. is not a free country. It's "a Democracy" and there is a significant difference.


JED said...

Another thing about saying older movies and shows (and many other things) are better than recent attempts: Remember that each new entertainment or event must "compete" with a growing list of things that happened before. So, it gets harder and harder to be the best or the most memorable.

I thought about this during the recent cold spell when the weather man said it is harder to set new records in certain situations (like coldest high temperature) because of the accumulating range of temperatures in the past. Of course, we're doing our best to keep setting new high temperatures which leads to another thought on this whole "the older versions are better" idea. If humans can make new heat records by ignoring the past, we should be able to improve stories, movies and music by studying the past, learning from them and improving them.

So, maybe that's what helps make it harder to improving our movies, too. Fewer people are willing to study the past to learn what was done well and where the mistakes were made. How many musicians study the masters before going on with their own attempts? How many writers study the old stories and fables before writing their own? With film and TV, it's easier. The records are more clear and there is less history. And you're only going to see "the best movie ever" less often because it's still competing with The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Bible and I Love Lucy