Two Oscar Contenders: One Verbal, One Visual

Mark Fields

Mark Fields

, Entertainment

The Post and The Shape of Water show diverse styles of Spielberg, del Toro

These are not great days for those in the media game. The reporting business has been racked by major setbacks: the take-over by profit-driven conglomerates; the trivialization of news from the 24/7 cable beast; the more recent disgraces of high-profile journalist-harassers; and most of all, the demeaning howl of “fake news” popularized by the sitting President.

All that is distressing, even nauseating for those of us who value the importance of the media and view exceptional journalists as modern-day heroes. Well, director Steven Spielberg with his new film, The Post, has just the cure: a taut, cerebral thriller about how The Washington Post broke the Pentagon Papers story and held the federal government accountable for its disinformation campaign about the true state of the Vietnam War.

In 1971, The Post was not the revered national newspaper and journalistic exemplar that it is today. Rather, it was a family business in a smallish eastern city that just happened to be the national capital. D.C. socialite Katharine Graham had assumed the role of publisher upon the premature death of her husband, a position of authority and responsibility that was much more uncommon for a woman in those days.

Then, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, leaked a classified study that revealed decades of government deception about Vietnam to several newspapers, and The New York Times became the first to publish portions of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. When the Times was enjoined by the Nixon Administration, publisher Graham and her crusty, ambitious editor, Ben Bradlee, were faced with a perilous opportunity: defy the Nixon Administration to break a landmark news story but face repercussions that could include jail.

Spielberg’s telling of this historic event, aided by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s rat-a-tat screenplay, contains all the ingredients one wants in a journalism thriller: compelling and eccentric characters, the ink-stained romance of a humming newsroom, a powerful political adversary, and the ever-present pressure of a deadline. And although the dramatic rhythms of this story feel familiar, they do so in a reassuring way, at least for those who see journalists as virtuous, albeit flawed heroes. One especially effective touch: Richard Nixon himself appears as a character, seen only from a distance through windows at the White House with voiceovers provided by his own surreptitious tape recordings.

Spielberg turns to two other Hollywood titans to embody this project. Tom Hanks plays Bradlee with the requisite combination of brusqueness and charm. Meryl Streep is both flighty and flinty as Graham as she comes into her own both as a publisher and a leader. The two of them, who have never worked together on a film before, make their scenes crackle with intensity and gravitas. They are surrounded by a raft of accomplished supporting actors, including Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson.

One can’t watch this film without being mindful of its cinematic forebear, All The President’s Men. After all, that story about Watergate also involves The Washington Post and editor Bradlee. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the parallel. In fact, the denouement of this Pentagon Papers adventure wryly hints at the Watergate story coming just around the corner.

As both a timely history lesson about the dangers of insular, autocratic government and as a lesson in bravura filmmaking, The Post proves itself to be more than newsworthy.

The Shape of Water

If Spielberg is a verbal film stylist, then Guillermo del Toro is a comparable master of visual cinema, with an emphasis on the fantastic and bestial. His The Shape of Water delights the eyes and exhilarates the imagination.

Set in a secret government research lab in Cold War-era Baltimore, The Shape of Water tells of an unlikely yet completely entrancing romance between a lonely, mute janitor and the non-human lab specimen whom she befriends…The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Marty.

I don’t want to reveal more of the story, so that viewers can be caught up in del Toro’s magical realism for themselves. But the film is beautifully shot and deftly directed, a dazzling palette of greens, blues, and teals that gradually introduces the occasional punch of red.

Sally Hawkins captivates as janitor Elisa, and del Toro regular Doug Jones is both otherworldly and truly empathetic as the creature. Michael Shannon is enjoyably odious as the cruel lab security chief. Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg play Elisa’s friends and collaborators as fully formed characters within the framework of the movie.

One needs a robust suspension of disbelief to buy into the premise of this offbeat love story, but for those willing to make the leap, The Shape of Water will be a provocative treat.

Also opening in February: The 15:17 to Paris, retelling of the train hero story, Feb. 9; eagerly-awaited Marvel film focused on a black superhero, Black Panther, Feb. 16; Alex Garland’s supernatural thriller, Annihilation, and a mystery comedy about board gamers, Game Night, both on Feb. 23.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.