Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.

Advertisements

“Ready Player One” movie review

A spectacular journey that will have you on the edge of your seat. Ready Player One is a throwback to the classic Spielberg blockbuster films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s that many of us know, quote, and love. You’ll do far more than wax nostalgic in this film, because the focus is on the conflict at hand and not the pop culture references. Spielberg’s adaptation of the best-selling novel, written by Ernest Cline, takes on the challenge of crafting a visually compelling narrative that shows the benefits of virtual reality (VR) and gaming, juxtaposing it against the harshness of a reality following socio-economic and natural disasters in the near future. Although the story highlights the benefits of VR and shows the wonders of the imagination through the exquisitely designed scenes, there is one element seen throughout the story that transcends the illusion of Oasis (the virtual world); and that is humanity. Generosity of spirit and integrity are showcased brilliantly through the various central characters. I found myself, at the end of the movie, thinking about how much it reminds me of the magic of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Never once, will you find an opportunity for boredom to set in. And you’ll find yourself rooting for this open source of entertainment and information to remain available to all those who want to participate, and not regulate content based upon how much someone is willing to pay.

From filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes the science fiction action adventure “Ready Player One,” based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. The film is set in 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse. But the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. (IMDb)

Pop culture, geek-dom, and nerd-dom for everyone! Whereas the book primarily contains 1980s references, the movie adaptation spans pop culture from the 80s to today. This was an important and strategically solid move in order to appeal to a wide age-range of movie-goers. Not being a gamer myself, I am unable to comment on the various references in the film and how they are placed perfectly in the narrative; however, I LOVE movies and TV, so I can definitely comment on those references, and they were spot on! Loved every one of them. And not just because these references were in the movie–anyone can just shove references and product placements into a movie without thought of the meaning or contribution to the plot–each and every movie or TV reference was selected specifically to fulfill a larger purpose and placed precisely where it needs to be. It would have been far too easy for the pop culture references to steel attention away from the plot, but the structure and pacing of the movie is such that the references enhance the experience without becoming sheer spectacle that could have been interpreted and pandering to audiences.

Of all the references, my favorite is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That’s right. Return to the infamous Overlook Hotel during one of the quests to search for the Jade Key. The Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s horror masterpiece (that was, interestingly enough, disliked strongly by Stephen King) was incredible. I felt that I was legitimately transported to the macabre setting in which we encounter unimaginable terror. This referenced worked particularly well because I cannot imagine another setting that could have been used in such an instrumental fashion. There are times in films that a location could be swapped out for another similar setting and achieve the same result because the plot is not predicated on it–essentially, the plot would play out just as well and effectively through another comparable location. The Overlook Hotel and specific events from The Shining (that I won’t go into because of spoiling the experience) were nearly as integral to the advancement of the plot as the characters themselves. No sooner could you replace The Shining sequence than you could the main turning points between Acts I/II and II/III. Although there are many excellent sequences to choose from in the movie, the series of scenes during the time spent at The Overlook are definitely my favorite.

It’s not often that an action-adventure or fantasy movie is deep enough to provide social commentary on real issues facing us in the real world or what it means to be human; but Ready Player One contains fantastic material for philosophical discussions regarding the current trends and challenges facing present-day society. The subtext of this movie contains material on human values, equitable access to content online, and the dangers of falling victim to only “existing” in a virtual world. Man vs technology, greed vs generosity are ways to look at the story, not to oversimplify the subtext. Because of the present crisis of the ending of net neutrality facing the United States, there is clearly a message that everyone has the right to equitable access to the universe of entertainment and information online. When a greedy capitalist attempts to disrupt that access and determine someone’s access based upon how much someone is willing to pay, we see that the system runs the risk of breaking down and not allowing for the joy that was once ran through the very framework of the virtual world. The film also provides audiences with commentary on the importance of actively participating in the real world to form tangible, physical relationships with others in order to find love and forge friendships. Furthermore, if a society becomes so fixated on avoiding the problems of the real world by transporting to a virtual world, then the problems of the real world grow worse, bigger, and more devastating than if society takes the time and effort to combat that which seeks to destroy our world.

Such an excellent movie! If you are a fan of the Black Mirror series on Netflix for its Twilight Zone approach to tackling tough subject matter involving the degree to which technology permeates our lives, then you’ll enjoy Ready Player One. I find that many elements of this movie feel like the San Junipero episode, and the successful show at large, because of the terrifying visions of the near future distorted by the abuse of technology. Thoroughly enjoyed every moment on the more than two-hour runtime. I was initially afraid that the movie would feel too much like a video game, but that is not the case. The design is such that the virtual world and real world feel just as tangible. Being that I am not a gamer, I don’t want to attend the cinema and feel that I am watching cut scenes from a video game, so this was handed extremely well. You’ll easily find characters that you can identify with and root for, and the opposition forces are well-developed too.

“Jurassic Park” (1993), Sci-Fi Horror NOT Action-Adventure

In honor of Jurassic Park‘s 25th Anniversary, I want to revisit why the film works so incredibly well, and never gets old. Just like Dr. Alan Grant states at the beginning of the film, “raptors have far more in common with present day birds than they do with reptiles,” that same analogy can be drawn with the original Jurassic Park and its proximity to horror compared to action-adventure. Borrowing from Dr. Grant, the original Jurassic Park has far more in common with scifi-horror than it does with action-adventure, hence why it has held up over the years and continues to be a favorite film for many cinephiles and fans alike. While all the sequels, including Jurassic World are far more action-adventure than the original, Jurassic Park can be likened to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The latter is a quintessential space scifi-horror with action-adventure sequels just like the former. And like Jurassic Park, the original Alien is considered far superior to that of the sequels. But why is this? There are many reasons from script to director to cinematography; but at the end of the day, it’s the fact that both these critically acclaimed and admired films have their respective roots in the American horror film and not action-adventure movies. More so than any other genre, horror is (1) uniquely American and (2) the most time tested, given it can trace its roots back to the 1890s and was perfected by Universal Pictures in the 1920s and 30s.

So what separates Jurassic Park from the sequels? Both have life-threatening dinosaurs, both have action, both have adventure, etc. But, only the original carries with it social commentary, rich subtext, and well-developed themes told through a brilliant combination of horrific frights and believable sciences taking place within a world of fiction grounded in reality. Furthermore, the focus in both Jurassic Park and Alien is largely on the drama between the characters and the oppositional forces in the film. The sequels in both franchises place far less emphasis on well-developed conflict and drama, and instead sacrifice those golden elements of cinematic storytelling for high-concept CGI-filled adventure movies with lots of dinosaurs or aliens. The proliferation of gimmicks and effects is often used to hide a weak story. Fortunately, Jurassic Park provides audiences with a strong plot told through exceptional cinematic storytelling.

Jurassic Park‘s screenplay benefitted from being penned by the award-winning author Michael Crichton who also wrote the novel by the same name. Often times, when the author of the novel also writes the screenplay, the screenplay forms a stronger foundation upon which the technical elements can be build. A more recent example of a brilliant screenplay adaptation of a novel is Gone Girl, the author of the novel was the screenwriter. Although a screenplay is visually driven whereas a novel is internally driven, when a novelist with a penchant for visual storytelling writes the screenplay for the movie adaptation, the screenplay tends to contain better developed characters, strong subtext, effective conflict, and excellent dialogue. Crichton created incredibly memorable characters who each spoke with their own voice. Casting the right actors to portray the characters is obviously important–and the cast for Jurassic Park is exemplary–but even before the actor steps into the character’s shoes, the character has to be created. Each character in Jurassic Park possesses unique traits, strengths, weaknesses, dialect, and behaviors. Instead of the conflict being arbitrary, the conflict develops through the interpersonal relationships between the characters and the relationship between the characters and the opposition–human and nature.

I was in elementary school when the movie hit theatres in the summer of 1993; and although under 13, my parents allowed me to go see the movie. It was my first PG-13 film, and what an experience! Not unlike Dr. Grant’s reaction to his first encounter with a dinosaur in the film, my reaction to Spielberg’s masterpiece was eyes-wide-open, mouth gaping wide, and racing endorphins. And then comes the macabre contrast in Acts II and III. “Ooo, ahh–that’s how it begins, and then there’s running and screaming” (Dr. Ian Malcolm, The Lost World). Aptly stated. The opening scene hooks the audience with a disaster, but does not reveal much about the dinosaur in the secured transport–brilliant. Because this scene did not show a dinosaur, the audience’s curiosity is pricked which creates an eagerness to see a dinosaur and a degree of nervousness or apprehension accompanying that curiosity. We wanted to see more. If you’re familiar with Hitchcock’s bomb theory, he states “you must never let the bomb go off.” More than simply shock audiences with the death of that employee at the beginning of the movie, this scene serves as information more than a glimpse at that which would be horrific in real life. This delay of seeing a dinosaur forces the audiences to pay more attention to the characters, dialogue, and conflict than looking for the next dino. Furthermore, the delay in seeing a dinosaur, perfectly setup audiences for the grand reveal on the way from the helipad to the Visitors Center. Interestingly, if you add up all the screen time that dinosaurs receive in the film, you’ll find that they are only on screen for about 20-minutes. Just like Hitchcock transferred the terror from the screen into the minds of the audience after the Psycho “shower scene,” Crichton and Spielberg did the same with Jurassic Park.

It’s the soft introduction to the man-made dinosaurs that makes the horror of the dinosaurs feel so much more intense later on in the film–and make you scream! In terms of the type of science-fiction horror film Jurassic Park could be classified as, it shares many commonalities with man vs nature and man vs technology horror films. Crichton is known for his believable science within his works of fiction. It is obvious that genetics and paleontology were researched enough to use real, hard science to inspire a fictional science that feels just out of reach of the current trends in the science, technology, and engineering fields. Pair that with horror, and you have a solid cinematic film. The brilliance of horror films is how they can creatively comment on or provide a different perfective on a anthropological or psychological observation; moreover, it can be helpful when exploring philosophical questions. And these topics are visually explored through the movie and externalize the themes. One area that separates popcorn action-adventure movies from horror films is the cultural significance of the subtext and themes. Typically, action adventure movies do not carry with them social commentary nor significantly pull on our emotions and tap into our most primal fears. Jurassic Park contains all of this. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in, that which in real life, would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once, but repeat it. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. Certainly the dinosaurs in the movie should have remained “extinct,” but were brought back to life and engaged in violence in which we find enjoyment. 

Some of the themes found in Jurassic Park that are told through the visceral horror and tense dramatic moments are: man vs nature, foolishness and folly, greed, wisdom vs knowledge, man vs technology, and parenting. Why don’t the Jurassic films have the chache that the original does? You try to find to find rich themes such as these in the subsequent films. They don’t exist. Why? Because it is far more difficult to explore what it means to be human and social constructs in a scifi action movie than in scifi horror. An action movie would be ill-equipped to tackle questions of a philosophical nature because the focus is largely on the action itself and not necessarily the characters, and almost never the subtext and theme. For an action film to delve into that which causes the film to take on an intellectual nature, it would lose the attention of those who simply want a good popcorn movie. Don’t get me wrong, there are excellent action-adventure movies that contribute to the world of cinema in exceptional ways. Indiana Jones Raiders, Doom, and Last Crusade do that. Obviously, the inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of Jurassic Park. Dr. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it immediately becomes the film’s mantra (and a quotable line), true in every demonstrable, measurable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their design and engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a kid-averted paleontologist who discovers his parental side, humanity survives despite meddling in the natural order of things by playing God because that’s what we do–we survive. Every character in the film either understands or is reminded of this–some of them, by force when it’s too late–through the course of events.

Jurassic Park uses horror film techniques in a brilliant fashion to force its audience into considering the larger philosophical questions mentioned in the previous paragraph. It reinforces those questions with clever parallels: Dr Grant’s way of paleontology is about to go “extinct” due to the rise of computer technology (the line “don’t you mean extinct” came from a comment behind-the-scenes regarding CGI encroaching upon animatronics, puppetry, and special effects); the power of the natural world is exponentially magnified when the park’s technology failure is combined with a disastrous tropical storm; money causes literally every ill in the film, even when it is being used for supposedly admirable purposes; and “you were so pre-occupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” The inability to reconcile nature’s resistance to control is one of the most important themes of the film, of course. Ian Malcolm tells the group that “life finds a way,” and it abruptly becomes the tale’s rallying cry, true in every conceivable way; the dinosaurs survive outside their engineering, the lost children survive with the help of a paleontologist who discovers his paternal side, humanity survives despite its meddling because it’s what we do. Every character in the film either understands this, or is made to by the course of events.

Beyond exploring themes, it’s the intent of the film that determines whether is a thriller (suspense) or horror film. The films speak for themselves. If the intent is to horrify, then it’s a horror film; if the intent is to thrill, then it is a thriller. In all fairness, Jurassic Park is borderline; but it’s the level of shock, fear, and dread that may just be enough to tip the scale toward horror instead of thriller, and certainly evidence enough to prove that it is NOT simply a dark action-adventure movie. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Scott’s Alien, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is also an intellectual film. Whereas an action-adventure movie would have provided audiences with a few minutes collectively of some surface-level chit-chat above ethics in order to technically give the film a theme, Jurassic Park provides audiences with an entire film about ethics that will have them talking about the various dilemmas and challenges facing the characters throughout the film. It’s brilliant! And quite the rarity these days. The hand of Spielberg’s penchant for horror (Jaws and Poltergeist) is seen in Jurassic Park from requesting that Crichton rewrite the original screenplay to be more cinematic and less internally driven because Spielberg desired to take the novel and adapt it to screen as a Jaws on land. If his intent was to make a sequel to Jaws, then we have to conclude that his intention was to horrify audiences in some measurable amount.

With a film as dynamic as Jurassic Park, it may be nearly impossible to prove that it is a horror film at its roots; but, the body of information provided in this article help to support the thesis that it is a horror film based upon the intention, conflict, themes, and visceral terror. “Well, there is it.”

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“The Post” movie review

The Fourth Estate, triumphant! Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a historic biographical drama depicting the story behind the infamous Pentagon Papers that set a monumental precedent in the US Supreme Court following a ruling in the favor of the freedom of the press. Probably the most significant ruling affecting journalism, this film goes beyond the cold, hard facts of the case and into the offices and houses of those who were responsible for shedding light on the lies the US government was spinning to keep the War in Vietnam going. In a manner of speaking, this film could be read as Spielberg’s ode to US journalism, and by extension, to the free press at large. While traditional ink and paper newspapers may be slowly becoming a thing of the past, Spielberg’s film shows that the press has an important place in a democratic society. Without the free press, a nation’s government could easily lie and maliciously mislead its people to serve its own gain. No surprise, Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ acting is simply brilliant; while the rolls may not seem incredibly complex, it’s the beauty in simplicity that demonstrates the excellent commitment to character that we all have come to respect over the years for these Oscar-winning actors. The Post is a historical drama brought to life for the screen through precise editing, beautiful cinematography, and a gripping score.

Unrest grows at home while the US is deep in the middle of the Vietnam War. With conflicting reports coming out of the warzone, the people of the United States have only the word of their government to assure them the war is going well but they have to continue sending the boys overseas to “win.” After a rogue journalist leaks papers from the Pentagon describing how the US is losing and it keeps sending boys overseas to keep up appearances to the New York Times, the attorney general places a restraining order on the iconic newspaper to prohibit it from publishing the classified material. After word of this unprecedented extension of power, the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes to have a copy of the papers and desires to publish them in order to show the American people what the government has really been up to. Only one small problem, the owner of The Washington Post Katharine (Kay) Graham (Streep), the first woman to own a major newspaper, is unsure if the papers should be published because she seeks to take the paper public and this could damage that–not to mention that she and Bradlee could go to jail. Go beyond the pages of a history book to witness the thrilling drama unfold as you find out just why The Pentagon Papers was such a big deal.

While many critics and fans of the movie are touting it as the “best movie of the year” or commenting to managers at cineplexes that it’s “amazing,” I am not convinced that it truly is “the best” or as “amazing” as it’s being heralded. Before you go questioning my taste in movies, I completely agree that The Post is an excellently made film–there is nothing wrong with it. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect film. But just because it’s figuratively perfectly produced and directed, does not mean that it is “amazing.” In many ways, this movie reminds me of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It too is a perfectly made historic drama (coincidentally also starring Hanks) that falls within the same subgenre of drama as The Post. When I think of a Spielberg film, I have come to expect a wow factor. And it’s that lack of a wow factor that troubles me in awarding this film with an accolade such as “best picture.”

Usually, there is a particular scene that evokes strong emotion, perhaps it’s a powerful monologue or heated emotionally-driven exchange between two characters, there are other methods for evoking an eruption of feeling and emotion within the mind and body. Never once did I feel my emotions run high with this film. And I happen to be an entertainment journalist, I teach media writing at a popular university, and spent time in broadcast news. I have a love for the media, the press, and publishing. I also spent time in a media law class in graduate school analyzing the very papers in question, and I still did not feel emotionally woken up by the film. I find the film very well written, produced, shot, directed, acted, scored–everything is done with extreme precision. But, that’s what I have come to expect from Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks. Yes, to be able to consistently deliver excellence is nearly uncanny; but when I know what to expect, it’s much more difficult to surprise or wow me. That’s what is missing from this film in my opinion–the wow factor.

On the socio-political spectrum, I find the commentary on women in leadership is brilliant! Quite happy that the film chose such an incredible woman’s story to tell so cinematically well. The character of Kay Graham is not only an inspiration to aspiring female leaders, but she is an inspiration to all who find themselves in positions of influence or power for which society does not feel he or she is suited. Whereas this prejudice can affect men and women, history has shown that is has affected women more. And this film is a breath of inspiration for young women who will become future leaders around the world. Brave. Kay Graham was an incredibly brave woman who fought the good fight and proved that she could make the tough decisions that are required in order to grow a company. I also find that The Post serves as a beacon of hope that the press is here to serve the American people in a day and time that our government’s leaders claim that the press at large is “fake news.” Newspapers are here to serve the governed NOT the governers. Let the Pentagon Papers be a sign that our leaders are not past deception even if it means sending our military to certain death in order to keep up appearances.

The Post is definitely a movie that all journalists should watch. And not just “conventional” journalists. But anyone who takes part in publishing written, audio, or video media content. Especially those who cover governmental affairs should watch this historical drama highlighting a huge turning point in the freedom of the press.

“Bridge of Spies” movie review

BridgeofSpiesA spy movie with very little in the way of intrigue and espionage. Touchstone, DreamWorks, and 20th Century Fox’s Bridge of Spies is a very traditional biographical film. There is nothing innately wrong with it, but there lacks anything truly remarkable or memorable either. Tom Hanks plays a very Tom Hanks character and Spielberg provides us with a very classy historic movie. Perhaps it is all just as well because the Cold War was a war of information and not high powered action. And, that is pretty well what you get in this movie. The most thrilling scenes are ones that are already in the trailer. Even James Donovan’s (Hanks) testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court was anti-climactic. Despite the fact it is based on a true story, for cinematic purposes there should have been more emotionally trying scenes or surprise. We seldom get Cold War era movies, so this is a nice addition to historic/bio pictures. Although the descriptive “thriller” has been attached to this movie, I do not find sufficient evidence in the movie to support such a claim. It is a moderate drama–neither heavy nor lite. Perhaps if John Grisham had written a book on this event and that book adapted for the screen, the film would play off more accurately as a spy thriller. As it stands, it is a historic drama. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bridge of Spies is about a Cold War era spy swap in the late 1950s in East Berlin. Suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is apprehended by the FBI in New York and placed under the counsel of successful insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks). In an effort to show due process, even to suspected spies, the U.S. government provides Abel with a trial by his peers. Following a conviction, Hanks persuades the sentencing judge to allow Abel to live in the event they need him as leverage to trade for captured suspected American spies in Soviet Europe and Russia. Quite the brilliant move because an Air Force pilot and graduate student were both captured by the Soviets shortly after the apprehension of Abel. Follow Donovan as he makes his way to one of the most dangerous parts of Europe during the height of the Cold War in an effort to successfully negotiate a spy swap.

There really isn’t much to add besides what I have already mentioned in my opening. This movie is very par for the course. Hanks and Spielberg provide us with the quality that we are accustomed to receiving from them. I was never bored during the movie, but I was never on the edge of my seat either. Typically, I look to espionage movies for some sense of surprise or intrigue; but, this one plays it like a typical drama based on a true story. As this is not a story or event that many Americans likely know about, it provides insight into what many of the operations during the Cold War may have been like. I do feel that the dialog and character development were lacking. Hanks and the rest of the cast pretty much remain static through the whole movie. Often in movies based on true stories, I like to see dynamic character arcs or redemptions. What I find in this movie is a realistic depiction of this event that likely felt more intense at the time than what is shown of the screen. Perhaps that is it. Maybe, I would have liked the movie a lot more had there has been a pronounced thrilling nature or contained emotionally intense scenes.

If you are looking for a thrilling movie of government espionage, then this is not it. If you are looking for a well-produced biographical movie based on a true story, then this is it. I am certain that Tom Hanks plays the role of Donovan accurately and I commend him for bringing this real-life American hero alive for the screen. At the end of the day, this is a good example of an accurate biographic motion picture and Spielberg proves that he can deliver a classy true story as well as he can an action-adventure movie.