Who would have imagined that cinematic also-rans such as Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep could combine to bring a powerful historic film to the big screen? While I don’t want to rush to judgment, these three artists seem to have a bit of talent!
Setting my cynicism aside, this penetrating movie succeeds on two levels. First of all, it recreates the attempt of both the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers in order to expose the United States government’s treachery when it came to justifying the Vietnam War. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower and ending with Richard Nixon, four American presidents intentionally misled the public while sending 55,000 American boys to their death.
When the New York Times’ attempt to publish the Papers was temporarily stopped by governmental legal action, The Post, under the leadership of publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), risked destroying their own newspaper while facing possible prison sentences if they decided to tell the American people the truth. Graham was not only the first female newspaper publisher in the country but was harmed by trying to take the paper public on Wall Street. A widow whose only advice at home came from her daughter Lally (played by Alison Brie), she faced criticism from nearly every man with financial standing based on little more than her alleged weakness because she was a woman.
While “The Post” has a large cast of characters ranging from Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal, the New York Times publisher, Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield, Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, Bob Odenkirk as the dedicated Post reporter Ben Bagdikian and Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee, this film emulates the genius Ken Burns displayed in his recent 10-part series on the Vietnam War. Both movies establish that the United States has not always been the land of the free and the home of the brave. Our government manipulated a war by orchestrating a campaign that condemned Americans who protested it, and in the process left a stain on our country that time will not wash away.
But this movie stands out for an equally important reason, namely that a democracy cannot exist without a free press. All government officials are public servants who can only be held accountable if the public knows the unvarnished facts. Nearly all dictatorships control the press and as a result maintain power by distorting the truth and lying to the public.
Think about the attempt of President Trump and many of his supporters trying to label all criticism as fake news. It is not an exaggeration to say that our president is dancing on the edge of destroying our republic if he succeeds in muzzling all of the press with the exception of his sycophants on Fox News and right-wing bloviators who dominate AM radio stations.
“I, Tonya,” directed by Craig Gillespie, joins “Three Billboards” and “Lady Bird” as one of the best films of 2017. Based on the true story centering on the attack of Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 that left her knee fractured, the film tells a wildly engrossing story of the rise and fall of Tonya Harding.
Seldom will you see a movie that will so profoundly captures your attention while centering on low-rent characters. Harding was physically and verbally abused by her mother LaVona from childhood, and her girl-from-the-other-side-of-the-tracks background cost her dearly in every skating competition. Dealing with a mother who smoked and drank at every available occasion, her life became a complete nightmare when she married Jeff Gillooly, a physically abusive husband.
The film tells Tonya’s life story by having the actors participate in interviews given over the years by Tonya and her deranged set of friends and family. In the process, Director Gillespie uses vulgarity as an art form in the same fashion as displayed in the above-mentioned “Three Billboards.” Furthermore, the soundtrack employs many popular songs from the 1980s-90s, and it leaves you embracing the entire film from beginning to end.
The movie has some magnificent performances, and let’s begin with Margot Robbie who plays Tonya. Along with being one of the most beautiful actresses working today, she had previously made memorable contributions to “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Suicide Squad” (2016) and “The Legend of Tarzan” (also 2016). However, here she gives a performance that should gain her an Oscar nomination in the best actress category. Magnificent on the ice where she became the first American woman to successfully pull off a triple axel, Robbie’s Tonya opens a window into a personal life that robbed her of any semblance of dignity.
Additionally, I expect Allison Janney to win the Oscar in the supporting actress category for her role as Tonya’s mother. She is simply brilliant as a woman who abuses her daughter to the point of throwing a small knife that sticks in her poor child’s arm. And if you want an idea of just how profanely vulgar mommy is at every turn, wait until you see her dismissive remark to her daughter at her regrettable wedding, “I said you could f--- dumb, not marry dumb.”
Furthermore, Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser give unforgettable performances as Tonya’s husband and body guard. Departing from his memorable performances as the Winter Soldier in the “Captain America” films, here Stan plays a deranged ex-husband who at one point drunkenly fires a shot at Tonya where he slightly wounds her in the head as she desperately seeks a way to make the Olympic team. And Hauser in many ways dominates the film as one of the dumbest human beings to have ever graced the big screen. This was the profound idiot who hired two hitmen who eventually attack Kerrigan.
In the end, you develop quite a bit of sympathy for Tonya for many reasons. The movie’s magical appeal doesn’t rest on promoting her as a hero, but as a product of an American way of life that has destroyed many people.
“The Shape of Water”
If you don’t embrace hard-edge science fiction, this film is not for you. On the other hand, if you are a fan of Vincent Price and “The Fly” (1958) or Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” (1933), then this is a must-see movie.
Guillermo del Toro created a romantic horror story where Elisa, a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins), falls in love with an aquatic green beast (Doug Jones) kept chained in a U.S. military facility in the early 1960s. Living an isolated life where she begins each day masturbating in her heated tub, her attraction to the creature begins after discovering the government’s intent to kill him in order to conduct medical experiments.
While Elisa will challenge for Oscar consideration, the film also contains some great performances from a cast of well-known actors. The great Richard Jenkins is unforgettable as Elisa’s apartment neighbor who was fighting to find some meaning in a life increasingly devoid of hope. Octavia Spencer plays Elisa’s spirited janitorial co-worker, and plays a sarcastic woman who will leave you laughing. What makes this film rise out of the ashes are the performances of two Michaels — Shannon and Stuhlbarg. This movie takes place during the height of the Cold War and Stuhlbarg is pitch perfect as a Russian agent who must decide which comes first: an obligation to his mother country or the life of the beast.
Nobody plays a nasty rogue better than Shannon, and he shines here as a despicably violent security supervisor who delights in torturing the beast. The electrically charged rod that he carries with pride defines him, and his desire to succeed in the eyes of a general leads him to ignore a loving wife and children.
While tension mounts as Elisa and her reluctant allies try to help the beast escape, the beauty of this film is found in del Toro’s use of old movies and music from the 1940s-50s. It is to his credit (he co-wrote, produced and directed this movie) that he animates the entire story with moments such as Elisa dancing to a Benny Goodman song.
And whatever your feelings may be about this film are largely irrelevant. After all, many women will likely identify with a plot that involves the consequences of falling in love with a monster!
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.