“Ben Bradlee: If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?
Kay Graham: We can’t hold them accountable if we don’t have a newspaper.” Dialogue from the THE POST
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By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout
December is the height of the Oscar season in Hollywood and this is when the heavyweight contender movies get released. Two of them have a high probability for numerous industry accolades and they are great historical dramas about that rare moment of making a critical decision against common sense and advice of everyone around. They deal with different countries and different historical events but they have in common the same defiance against general wisdom and the same victory that only in retrospect seems inevitable.
The first movie is called The Post and it deals with The Washington Post’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
The movie was created with a lightning speed, from a script written in 2016 by a young, first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah (later joined by an equally young writer Josh Singer), through a minimal pre-production time by the director Steven Spielberg and a team of producers to equally short three months filming in the early summer of 2017. Movies often take years in development and pre-production so this unusually short production time is a major achievement in itself, especially that Spielberg was at the same time in production of a massive movie Ready Player One.
The Post is based on a true story from 1971. The New York Times gets access to a trove of 70,000 pages of a Rand Corporation secret study, documenting decades of the government deception about the US involvement in Indochina going back to 1950’s. The NY Times is promptly choked by a court order but The Washington Post, then a local, family-owned newspaper, gets hold of the same, explosive material. Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher and the first woman in such a prominent media position, has to make a decision to publish the documents or yield to threats of imprisonment and closure of her company that she has just took public. She is supported by the editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and opposed by practically everybody else: her conservative company board, her personal friends including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who is in the middle of this cover up, and her legal advisors who point out Graham’s precarious personal and financial situation in case of a court case.
Really good movies are usually about more than one thing and The Post does not disappoint in this regard. Spielberg in one elegant swoop manages to cover several current affairs issues: a fight for American freedom of the press (that freedom that used to be so envied by all news organizations in the world), a struggle of a lonely woman in a position of power that used to be reserved exclusively to men, and the government deception ordered by a president who is a crook. However, the very heart of the movie is that moment of a decision against a rational advice of the majority. Spielberg expresses this on screen by starting with wide shots of the newspaper office floor and Kay Graham’s world – socialite events, the NY Stock Exchange, board meetings and elegant homes. As the story progresses toward the moment of Graham’s decision to risk her freedom, her company and her family legacy, the world we see narrows down to just one room, and then just to a close shot of her face. Here is a person who does not have any precedents or any guidance to make her decision, knowing full well that the right decision is also not the safe one. It’s a great movie about the not-so-long ago time when press was more about pursuit of real news than faking them.
“We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” Winston Churchill on June 4 1940
The second movie to recommend today is called Darkest Hour and probably should be watched in tandem with an equally strong Oscar contender of Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (see our previous Food for the Soul: 13 Minutes & Dunkirk).
Darkest Hour is a U.K. movie starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill making crucial political decisions during the several weeks in 1940 when Belgium and France fell to advancing German troops, resulting in an evacuation of the 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk. Churchill was called to serve as a Prime Minister of England against the strong opposition in Parliament, King George VI’s mistrust and a tremendous political pressure to start negotiating for peace with Hitler to save the British Isles from invasion. We watch Churchill struggle with these political obstacles, his own health infirmities, and the lack of support (his European allies were surrendering and his American contact, a.k.a. FDR pledged neutrality and inability to send military assistance). We also watch him compose his three speeches. The first one, known as “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat,” was his inauguration as Prime Minister and announcement to form a national alliance government in preparation for war. He addressed the second one to the House of Commons right after Dunkirk and it is his famous cry of defiance: “We shall fight on the beaches…”. The last speech is known as “The Finest Hour” and it was written during Churchill’s “darkest hour” – right after the capitulation of France and on the eve of Battle of Britain. Till this day, these speeches, together with a few others, are among the most famous examples of oratory art of all times. The three presented in the movie are his most powerful and all they have been written in 1940 within a few of weeks. Churchill is shown in Darkest Hour as making a decision that is very risky from the military and political standpoint. Europe has just been overrun by millions of Hitler’s soldiers who are about to destroy the entire British army contingent still clinging to a few miles of the French coast. England is just across a small sliver of water that can be swam across, much less invaded by ships and planes. The logical thing would be to start negotiating for peace with Hitler in order to save the British civilians from total destruction. Churchill agonizes over his decision. The rest is literally history, of course, but the director Joe Wright and his star Gary Oldman brilliantly underscore the moment of this seemingly irrational decision made by Churchill.
Both movies describe the 20th century world that is gone in some many aspects. Telephones are those hard-to-monitor things with cables, people are just people rather than walking big data depositories, wars are fought for freedom rather than business opportunities, and press is about honorable delivery of real information in the service of the citizens. Nostalgic as these stories are, they still bring a great insight into contemporary world and the enormous consequences of single decisions.
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