In Theaters

When faced with hard choices, we may not know which way to turn. That’s especially true when all of our options appear problematic. Deciding which of the seemingly troublesome outcomes will prove least onerous can try our patience and test our resolve. At the same time, though, such scenarios can sharpen our scrutiny skills, especially when it comes to drawing upon our intuition and integrity to arrive at an amenable solution. So it was for a group of media professionals who found themselves with their backs up against the wall as seen in the new fact-based journalism drama, “The Post” (web site, trailer).

In 1971, The Washington Post  was going through a bumpy transition period. The family-owned newspaper, managed by publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), was in the process of going public to improve its financial position. But, to help make the publication a more attractive investment option, the paper also needed to look at upping its editorial profile, one more in line with the first-class reporting reputation it was seeking to cultivate, a responsibility assumed by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). This was vital in light of the changing journalism marketplace, with more major newspapers, like The New York Times, taking on more of a national – and not just a local – presence. If the Post didn’t act, it could be left in the dust by other publications, threatening the company’s future.

Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, right) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, left) discuss the paper’s precarious future in director Steven Spielberg’s latest, “The Post.” Photo by Nick Tavernise, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC.

The opportunity to advance the paper’s coverage came with the release of the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page collection of covert documents detailing the U.S. role in Vietnam – not just during the war but in the two decades preceding it, going as far back as the Truman administration. Through this disclosure by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), it became apparent that American interference in Vietnamese affairs was pervasive, with extensive involvement in the Asian nation’s politics, economics and society. The damning disclosure also documented the futility underlying the U.S. war effort, a campaign that continued despite insider knowledge of this inherent problem and increasingly vocal domestic disapproval of the conflict.

The story was initially broken by New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain). However, given the bombshell nature of these revelations, the Nixon administration quickly came down hard on the Times, imposing an injunction against it from publishing any further material from the secret report, given that it was supposedly leaked in violation of the federal Espionage Act. With the Times’ hands tied, this opened the door for the Post, especially when Ellsberg was identified as the source of the leak: As a former colleague of Post assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Ellsberg found a new outlet for making additional disclosures.

Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) faces tough editorial decisions for his publication, The Washington Post, in “The Post.” Photo by Nick Tavernise, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC.

Needless to say, given the magnitude of the story, Bradlee and Bagdikian jumped at the chance to pick up the gauntlet and continue publishing articles about the Pentagon Papers. However, considering that the Post’s source was the same as that of the Times, the paper soon found itself in the same position as its New York counterpart: If it published, it would be in violation of the same injunction that was now hampering the Times’ efforts.

This presented an enormous ethical dilemma for Graham. As someone who found herself in a position in which she never expected to be – she took over management of the Post after the unexpected death of her husband – and given the financial pressures on the business, she had to make the hard decision of whether or not to publish. If she allowed the Post to pick up where the Times left off, she ran the risk of prosecution and attendant penalties (including incarceration), not to mention the financial collapse of the paper that would almost assuredly follow. At the same time, if she green-lighted her staff’s plans, she would help raise the Post’s editorial reputation, a move that would also likely cast her in the light of a confirmed First Amendment champion (especially if courts ruled in the paper’s favor). Graham thus faced a high-stakes decision, to say the least.

Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) faces ethical dilemmas, both personally and professionally, in the new, fact-based journalism drama, “The Post.” Photo by Nick Tavernise, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC.

For Graham, personal considerations were also on the line. As a longtime friend and confidante of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), Graham had to weigh this relationship with the publishing dilemma she now faced. Having personally authorized the ramp-up of the Vietnam War during his tenure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara figured largely in the Pentagon Papers disclosures, revelations that painted him in a very different light from the person Graham thought she knew. Printing exposés about McNamara’s involvement would undoubtedly strain the bond between the two friends. But, as the former Secretary cautioned, publishing further excerpts from the clandestine documents would also bring the full weight of U.S. government down on the Post – and Graham.

With these circumstances in place, the stage was thus set for a high-profile showdown, one that would find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, as significant as the stakes were for the paper, its owner and its staff, there was much more in jeopardy, especially where freedom of the press considerations were concerned. Nevertheless, the actions of those involved effectively demonstrate what it means to take a stand, even in the face of seemingly long odds and potentially devastating consequences. They provide the makings of a powerful, inspiring message to those staring down demanding and far-reaching challenges, scenarios where the stakes are bigger than those of the principals involved.

After a somewhat slow, sometimes-belabored start in which the paper’s financial woes are detailed almost to excess, “The Post” thankfully finds its legs about 40 minutes in, at last taking off on a more engaging pace as it moves toward its uplifting (albeit predictably feel good) conclusion. It’s a film with a timely (though, one can’t help but cynically wonder, regrettably tardy) message about the state of journalism in an America presently besieged by corporate media consolidation and heavy-handed attempts to quash free speech. Streep and Hanks turn in adequate performances in their lead roles (though definitely far from their best), with the real stars shining in the supporting parts (particularly Odenkirk, Greenwood and Rhys). Given the current political climate, director Steven Spielberg’s latest is the right film with the right message that liberal Hollywood adores and loves to lavish with honors. It’s just too bad that it’s not a picture that lives up to that aspiration.

Informal meetings between Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, right) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, left) often turn into profound discussions about the paper’s future in “The Post.” Photo by Nick Tavernise, courtesy © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC.

Despite its shortcomings, however, “The Post” has been lavishly honored in this year’s award competitions, most recently with two Oscar nominations for best picture and actress (Streep). The film also captured three National Board of Review awards for best picture, actress (Streep) and actor (Hanks) and was named American Film Institute Movie of the Year. In addition, the picture earned six Golden Globe nominations (best dramatic picture, director, screenplay, score, dramatic actor, dramatic actress) and eight Critics Choice Award nods (best picture, director, original screenplay, score, editing, acting ensemble, actor, actress), though it took home no statues in either of these competitions.

Taking a stand is truly a noble act – but one that’s often fraught with great risk (and rewards). When up against such circumstances, we must weigh what’s at stake and the consequences of what each outcome might bring. Should we emerge victorious, however, we can look back and see just how meaningful our efforts prove to be.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Figuring Out What Drives Us

The motivations that drive our actions are usually clear, but sometimes they may stubbornly elude us, so much so that, after a while, we might not even wonder what they are. This often happens when we find ourselves embroiled in circumstances in which we lose sight of how we got into them and don’t know how to extricate ourselves. And, by then, we may find ourselves on a treadmill from which there is no apparent escape. So it was for an Olympic hopeful whose career came to an abrupt end, forcing her to change directions and embark on a journey she never expected, as detailed in the new, fact-based drama, “Molly’s Game” (web site, trailer).

After years of intensive training as a freestyle skier, Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) sought to secure a spot on the U.S. squad for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Through the years, Molly’s demanding father, Larry (Kevin Costner), pushed her hard, first as a child (Piper Howell) and later as a teen (Samantha Isler). In some ways, Molly resented the relentlessly rigorous training, but it also imbued her with an undeniable drive for success, one that helped her defy the odds and overcome a near career-ending injury in her teens. And, by the time she made her Olympic bid, she seemed poised for a date with destiny – save for a traumatic fall during competition that knocked her out of the running and off of the slopes for good.

Onetime Olympic hopeful-turned-poker game operator Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, right) consults her high-powered lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, left), when she finds herself in hot water in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering, “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Michael Gibson, Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

Fortunately for Molly, she had a backup plan … sort of. As a bright, educated college graduate, she possessed the intellect to become a success in virtually any field she chose. Unfortunately, she lacked direction and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She contemplated law school but instead chose to move to Los Angeles for a year to find her focus, a decision that infuriated her father. Nevertheless, Molly headed to California in search of whatever life had in store for her.

Molly initially took a job as a waitress in an upscale Los Angeles nightclub, one frequented by big-tipping celebrities and high rollers. While working there, she met Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), an obnoxious but extravagant real estate developer, who offered her a position as his office manager. In no time, Molly became a key player in Dean’s organization, including as operator of his high-stakes underground poker game, a contest that attracted numerous athletes, investment bankers and movie stars, most notably the infamous Player X (Michael Cera). Although Molly knew virtually nothing about the game at the outset, she made a good hostess for the event, learning quickly and hauling in huge tips from the players for her efforts. She became so successful, in fact, that Dean felt threatened by her, eventually firing her. But, with the contacts she had made through Dean’s game, Molly was soon able to set up a game of her own, one that was set in an even more lavish setting – and with even bigger stakes.

Real estate developer Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) has an interesting proposition for one of his employees in the new, high-stakes drama, “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Michael Gibson, Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

Over time, Molly’s success blossomed even further as the ranks of her high rollers swelled. But, given the unsavory nature of some of her players, she soon fell prey to the questionable gamesmanship of her competitors. And, almost overnight, her astounding success evaporated, prompting her to relocate her operation from Los Angeles to New York, a move designed to cash in on the potential fortune to be made from the city’s wealthy voracious gamblers. Before long, however, Molly found herself in the company of even more shady characters, including members of the Russian mafia and Italian mobsters seeking to horn in on her operation. What’s more, to keep going under the mounting pressure, Molly propped herself up with an array of pharmaceuticals, a move that increasingly eroded her perspective. Clearly it was time to get out. But how?

The answer came in the form of an FBI raid. With all of her assets seized, Molly moved home with her mother (Claire Rankin) and wrote a book about her experiences. Under the impression that the worst was behind her, Molly sought to move on with her life – that is, until she was arrested again, charged with running illegal gaming activities, operations that were shut down two years previously with the initial FBI raid. And so, faced with severe penalties and long jail time, she hired a high-powered lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), to help her find a way out.

High-rolling gambler Player X (Michael Cera) quickly becomes a regular in a high-stakes poker game operated by a onetime Olympic hopeful in the new, fact-based drama, “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Michael Gibson, Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

Card sharp Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp) savors the thrill of the game when it comes to high-stakes poker in “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Michael Gibson, Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

To find her way clear, however, it was time for Molly to get serious about how she ended up in this situation. That meant more than figuring up how she came to be involved with such colorful characters as card sharp Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), Ponzi scheme operator Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James) and Russian mob go-between Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd); it meant facing up to the reasons – the real reasons – why she pursued this course in the first place. And that meant getting in touch with those ever-elusive motivations. She needed to address what it meant to be the Molly she had become – and why – perhaps for the first time ever.

While much of “Molly’s Game” plays like a crime drama, the underlying issue at the heart of this film is finding oneself. Molly’s story makes colorful wrapping for this odyssey of self-discovery, one in which the protagonist must stare down some very difficult personal decisions and life lessons. But, if Molly is ever to find any redemption or salvation, stare down those truths she must, and the film makes that abundantly clear, providing a powerful cautionary tale for those of us who must do the same, no matter how much we may try to dismiss, ignore or overlook such considerations.

Addressing the pain of the past is a key concern for onetime Olympic hopeful-turned-poker game operator Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, right) when confronting her demanding father, Larry (Kevin Costner, left), in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

This offering from writer and first-time director Aaron Sorkin spins an intriguing yarn about a one-of-a-kind character, and it does so by successfully maintaining a brisk pace for its 2:20 runtime. The film also serves up yet another sparkling performance by Chastain, who once again demonstrates her tremendous skill at being able to disappear into a role, delivering one of the best lead performances of 2017, an effort that earned her Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominations for best actress. Backing Chastain is a superb ensemble, especially Elba, Costner, Cera and Camp, all of whom deliver some of their best on-screen work. Though I would have preferred that the dialogue sounded a little more natural and a little less “written,” the picture nevertheless features a capably crafted script adaptation, one that pulled down Golden Globe, Critics Choice, BAFTA and Oscar nominations for best screenplay.

Stripping away the veneer to find out who we really are and what we’re really trying to accomplish may prove to be quite a taxing process. But, if we’re ever to get the answers we seek in these areas, sometimes we have to pause to assess our circumstances, taking time to stop, catch our breath, and give our thoughts, beliefs and intents a good, hard look. We might be surprised at what we see. We may not like it, either. But at least such evaluations are honest, and that’s as good a starting point as any to determine where we are – and where we want to go.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Russian mob go-between Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd, right) connects high-stakes poker game operator Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, left) with questionable new players in the new fact-based drama, “Molly’s Game.” Photo by Michael Gibson, Motion Picture Artwork, courtesy © STX Financing, LLC.

The Joys and Sorrows of Love

Falling in love is undoubtedly one of the greatest joys of life. The passion, fulfillment and bliss that come from it are indescribable and beyond compare. Unfortunately, when it goes wrong or becomes burdened by extenuating circumstances, it can have a debilitating, painful downside. Those ups and downs are the subject matter of the new, fact-based romance, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (web site, trailer).

In 1978 London, aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) had a chance encounter with his new neighbor, Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), an aging film star whose career had fallen on hard times. Grahame, a vampish blonde starlet who earned a reputation for playing “bad girls,” made a name for herself as the seductive Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and won an Oscar for her performance in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). However, over time, with age, declining looks and the rising popularity of screen competitors like Marilyn Monroe, Gloria’s star gradually faded. She also developed a reputation for being somewhat difficult to work with, all of which caused her to be relegated to more obscure movie and TV roles. She took whatever parts she could get, both on stage and screen, in Europe and America.

Fading film star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) takes to the stage to prop up her sagging career in the new, fact-based romantic drama, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Photo by Susie Allnutt, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Off-screen, Gloria’s persona echoed her movie presence, and, when she met Peter, she turned on the charm with him in much the same way her characters did with their romantic prospects. Despite their vast difference in age – she was 54, he was 28 – there was an undeniable chemistry between them, a bond that quickly birthed a torrid relationship. But, as became apparent over time, the romance was driven by more than just hormones; Gloria and Peter truly were in love.

However, as much as Peter adored Gloria (and vice versa), the couple also had its problems. Gloria’s increasing obsession with her looks, her denial about her advancing age and her attempts at keeping a lid on secrets from her past all caused her to be temperamental. Peter attempted to comfort his beloved, but he often became the unwitting target of her wrath, frustration and sarcasm. And, as new and even bigger challenges began affecting Gloria, the strain between them grew progressively worse. But, when the real reasons behind Gloria’s behavior became apparent, it was obvious that she loved Peter more than he or anyone knew, something that remained hidden until circumstances became dire.

Despite an age difference of 20+ years, onetime screen idol Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening, left) and aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, right) find love in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Photo by Susie Allnutt, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s unfortunate that the depth of our feelings often isn’t revealed until we find ourselves in crisis, as was the case with Peter and Gloria. Of course, it’s not realistic to expect that to change as long as we’re mired in denial about our circumstances. Having the courage to face the truth about ourselves and our emotions can help us break through such obstacles, making it possible for us to find out what it means to truly be in love – and to express it freely to those we care about.

This vastly underrated cinematic gem definitely deserves wider attention – and far more recognition – than it has received thus far. With what is arguably Bening’s best screen performance, coupled with a fine counterpart lead portrayal by Bell, this heartfelt romantic tearjerker justifiably earns every bit of emotion it evokes from audiences. It also features one of the best original songs to grace the screen in ages, Elvis Costello’s fittingly moving You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way. If you enjoy good old-fashioned love stories, go see this one, despite what the cynics might say (but keep the tissues handy).

Aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) falls hard for a faded screen idol in the new romantic drama, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Photo by Susie Allnutt, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” unfortunately, has not received the awards season kudos it deserves. Thankfully, though, the BAFTA Awards – the British equivalent of the Oscars – came through to help make up for this, honoring the picture with nominations for best actress (Bening), actor (Bell) and adapted screenplay. It would have been gratifying to see this offering pick up additional accolades, but at least these three nods are better than nothing (which really would have been a shame).

Our time on this planet is shorter than most of us tend to realize, and it would be in our best interests to make the most of it while we have the chance, especially where love is concerned. Gloria and Peter bring that truth front and center, shining a brilliant light on it to help us appreciate its veracity and significance. Let’s hope we’re paying attention.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.