Movie reviews: 'Phantom Thread' an unpredictable, psychosexual story
Published Friday, January 5, 2018 7:10AM EST
THE POST: 4 STARS
The air of paranoia that hung over “All the President’s Men,” another movie centered on the investigative reporting of The Washington Post, is noticeably missing in “The Post.” Instead, the new Steven Spielberg film is a fist-pump-in-the-air look at the integrity and importance of a free press. It’s a little heavy-handed but these are heavy-handed times.
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. The socialite inherited The Washington Post following her husband Phil Graham's death in 1963. “Kate throws a great party but she’s only here because her husband died,” harrumphs board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford). With the paper bordering on insolvency she has tough decisions to make.
Meanwhile hardnosed editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is looking for a story that will help the paper break out of its local market and go national. “Are any of you tired of reading the news,” he asks his staff, “instead of reporting on it?”
When the New York Times breaks the story of a massive cover-up and is shut down by the Nixon White House, Bradlee sees an opportunity to scoop the Times and make a splash. Trouble is, the story involves several people close to Graham, most notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who prolonged the Vietnam War despite knowing it was a no-win situation.
Graham must make the decision to publish or not. Running the so-called Pentagon Papers would expose years of government secrets, make an enemy of President Nixon and could scare off the investors she’s been courting. Not reporting could endanger the young Americans who were still being drafted and sent to fight an unwinnable war. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” argues Bradley.
No spoilers here, but the historical record shows that bombshell revelations were made and today The Washington Post is still a going concern.
“The Post” is a historical tale that feels as timely as any front-page story in today’s paper. A high-stakes look at journalism before the age of fake news, it reminds us of the importance of objective, investigative reporting in an era of secrecy, lies, and leaks. It’s a ‘if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future” message movie that shines a light on a watershed but mostly forgotten slice of our past.
The Pentagon Papers were a significant turning point in our recent history. They were proof of a credibility gap between what politicians say and what they are doing. For Bradlee, publishing these documents sent a message that the White House had no influence on what stories made the front page and which don’t. “The press must serve the governed not the governors.”
Hanks and Streep, the two most trusted people in Hollywood, are solid as the two most trusted people in Washington.
As Graham, Streep is a woman who transcends the attitudes of her male advisors to do the right thing regardless of the repercussions. It’s a slow burn performance as she slowly sheds the weight of her socialite upbringing to embrace an outgoing and progressive point of view. As she grapples with publishing and possibly losing everything versus playing it safe, she becomes one of the film’s few characters with an arc.
Hanks plays Bradlee with bluster. As a noted collector of old school typewriters in real life, Hanks must have relished the chance to surround himself with the clickety-clack soundtrack of a newsroom in full tilt boogie. He is the movie’s reckless moral code, barking orders and making larger-than-life pronouncements on the importance of a free press. Hanks is at the Spencer Tracey stage of his career, an actor who brings with him an aura of decency and strength; the epitome of American exceptionalism made flesh. Despite the character being one-note Hanks breathes life into him, even if only as a spokesperson for the power of the first amendment.
“The Post” is propped up by good supporting performances, although fine actors like Sarah Paulson and Tracy Letts are stranded in roles that don’t give them much to do. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, one of the architects of the plan to publish the Pentagon Papers, fares better in one of the handful of roles expanded to full bloom.
The expected Spielberg touches are there as well. The Washington Post building shakes as the massive printing presses roar to life, a no-so-subtle metaphor of the upset the Pentagon Papers are about to cause in Washington.
Combined, all the elements add up to a movie that aims to make a statement while avoiding preaching to its audience. Spielberg, Hanks and Streep are entertainers first and foremost, and they do entertain here, but they also shine a light on a historical era whose reverberations are being felt today stronger than ever.
PHANTOM THREAD: 4 STARS
For his final acting job Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen “Phantom Thread,” a psychosexual story set in the world of fashion. Directed by his “There Will Be Blood” collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s an unpredictable film that some will find brilliant, others just plain odd.
Set against the backdrop of 1950s London, Day-Lewis plays fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. A perfectionist, he is an elegant combination of neurosis, talent and impatient whim. “If breakfast isn’t right,” explains sister and secretary Cyril (Lesley Manville), “it’s very hard for him to recover through the rest of the day.” A coiled spring, he puts the haughty into haute couture.
Never married, he has had many relationships with women, tossing them aside when he’s done. “Marriage would make me deceitful,” he says. “I don’t ever want that.” His only real pleasure is derived from his work, the act of creation.
His latest companion is Alma (Vicky Krieps), a delicate country waitress who becomes his muse and lover, even though, as he says, she butters her bread too loudly at breakfast. (To be fair Anderson amps up the sound so the buttering of toast sounds like the Indy 500.) “It’s hard to ignore,” he sneers, “like you just rode a horse across the floor.” Her purpose in Reynolds’s life is purely functional; she is a perfect model for his lithe designs. “You have no breasts,” he says. “It is my job to give you some if I choose to do so.” She wants more and even though her attempts at normalcy are met with scorn, she finds a way to make herself irreplaceable in his life.
“Phantom Thread” almost feels like two movies bound by the same characters. The first hour is a character study turned lush romance. Reynolds displays his controlling ways early on, wiping off Alma’s lipstick with the words, “I want to really see you.” Is it romantic or borderline abusive? Later, still on their first date he gets her out of her clothes and into one of his dresses. She is swept off her feet, despite his callously nonchalant behaviour. We soon learn she is no pushover, daring to stand up to the great man in a battle of wills.
The second half is a study of power and relationships with a menacing twist. Enough said. No spoilers here but it becomes about the need to shed routine in favour of changes and challenges in any pairing. It’s part “Masterpiece Theatre,” part Hitchcock and all Paul Thomas Anderson in his uncompromised glory.
It is luscious beautifully appointed with production design and clothes that the perfectionist Woodcock himself would appreciate.
Krieps is a poised presence who more than holds her own against Day-Lewis. Subtly graceful with a spine of steel, she is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. It is tremendous work and a perfect counterpoint to Day-Lewis’s more visceral work.
The three-time Oscar winner does not hand in a showy performance. It’s one built out of small details that radiate both his narcissism and insecurities. His curmudgeonly behaviour is sometimes funny—“Right now I am only admiring my own gallantry,” he says during one argument—but never slips into a tortured artist caricature. He’s a charming snake with a perfectly foppish bowtie and Day-Lewis binds together all the character’s idiosyncrasies to create a person who, on one hand, always sews a lock of his mother’s hair into his suit jackets, just above the heart, while on the other rails at Alma who has the audacity to bring him tea without asking permission. “The tea is going out… but the interruption is staying right here with me.”
Manville, as sister Cyril, earns most of the film’s laughs, perfectly delivering jabs and wilting looks.
In “Phantom Thread” Anderson takes a “Pretty Woman” style premise and elevates it to high art.