This has been a strange year for Oscar bait. Maybe its the changing voter system or a knock on effect of evolving social media buzz against a weak year at the box office, but this year’s crop of nominees is far more diverse in both representation and style than recent years, and features more filmmakers new to the awards game than one would reasonably expect. Even the superficially bait Dunkirk (war movie) and Phantom Thread (British costume drama) are complex, deconstructivist examples of their genre that make them difficult to imagine meeting any little gold men no matter their quality. It is left therefore to the two most seasoned awards filmmakers with a new film to deliver the most conventionally oscar-friendly material. But Spielberg’s The Post and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour are, for better or worth, both worthy of consideration beyond their Oscar chances.
Apparently incensed by the incoming Trump administration, Steven Spielberg came through with a straightforward account of the US press triumphing over a crooked regime in 1971 with the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. It’s a lot of people talking in rooms, but Spielberg makes every dialogue driven moment compelling by imbuing them with visual and aural action. A linking scene where Bob Odenkirk is put through to his source on a payphone is made nail-biting by his slippery fingers dropping coins before he can take a number down.
Scenes in The Post unfold with as few cuts as possible, Spielberg channeling his beloved Max Ophuls by having his players constantly rearrange into different shapes, the camera following their patterns of movement to infer stakes and relationships. He does so with a fluid, occasionally handheld camera which hides the practiced blocking.
This is a blessing, as the script leaves much to be desired. Though Liz Hannah and Josh Singer depict the process of putting a story out with the necessary verisimilitude for Spielberg to run with (a romantic montage of the paper being put together is a synecdoche of this), their attempts at social commentary are contrived. Each time someone mentions how the Nixon White House isn’t into freedom of the press everyone on screen seems to stare right into the camera and mouth the T word, as though this film about rich white professionals is playing to anyone who doesn’t already understand the context of both that time and now. Spielberg’s early-00s films provided a commentary on the post-9/11 climate with far more direct elegance than his more recent Trilogy of Bargaining (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and now The Post) has managed.
Here there is bubbling plotline about women in the workplace which is more interesting, though Spielberg doesn’t quite pay it off. Carrie Coon’s character, for example, is given little to do but seems to be building for a payoff. When she is on the phone announcing the court decision at the film’s climax, it’s her moment: the whole office hanging onto her every word. But then a man runs in and announces the verdict, and everyone cheers for him. Spielberg clearly chose to do this as a way of wringing maximum tension from the moment, but it undercuts the entire theme of patriarchal oppression if You don’t even get a shot of Coon’s own deflation at having this moment taken away.
The best sequence in the film is a five-way phone conversation as reporters, board members, and ultimately, Meryl Streep’s shy Kay, decide whether to publish the Pentagon Papers. The clashing viewpoints are kept geographically separate but all calling into Kay’s mind, heightening the pressure. She looks around the room as though they are present in the space with her. It’s a dazzling rapid-fire sequence that Spielberg pulls off with seeming effortlessness.
Joe Wright’s similar technical feats with The Darkest Hour on the other hand always call attention to themselves. Wide lenses and stark shadows, rooms bathed in a single colour as though Churchill is taking part in a remake of the Hotline Bling video (my references are always up to date). Like his famous Dunkirk beach tracking shot in Atonement, filmed that way to save time on a tight production, it always feels as though Wright’s formalism is improvised rather than functional. This has its pleasures, but it also makes his work lose much of a consistent vision.
Wright does, however, possess a fairly underrated sense of humour. Nosedive, his episode of Black Mirror and one of the show’s best, is so good because it mines pathos out of the blatant inhumanity of a world where each human interaction is ranked. You’ve seen how cloying Black Mirror’s ideas can be when they pretend to be cutting edge sci-fi, but Wright added just the right touch of lightness that kept his dystopia on the SATIRE side of things. He almost does the same thing here.
Darkest Hour starts out like a pilot for the most classic British sitcom ever made, a WWII special of One Foot in the Grave, with grumpy, alcoholic Churchill storming around Westminster delivering roast after roast to his staff and political adversaries. Then it starts to treat itself like the inspirational underdog story nobody needed to be told about a man who might have got Britain through a war but also unquestionably was an egomaniacal white supremacist war criminal. Gary Oldman might as well be auditioning for Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, for all the depth spending £60,000 on imported cigars did him in bringing some depth to this character.
Not that The Darkest Hour was ever going to be anything but Brexit-era propaganda but one hoped maybe Wright would try to interrogate the man behind the iconography a little before delivering his sermon on the upsides of oratory and charismatic leadership. The attempted meta-text of political parallels is less obvious here than in The Post, though plenty of people I heard coming out of the screening were muttering about Boris Johnson. This unwillingness to even entertain Churchill’s faults leaves the film somewhat redundant. We get a scene where he expresses his regret at getting his men killed in Gallipoli, but it is delivered as motivation in his against-the-odds arc here rather than as any true moral reckoning.
Some have praised the tight focus on this particular period in the Churchill narrative, but honestly, it’s the only part of his life you can spin positively. Plenty of takes have pointed out the film’s timing in terms of the Brexit context, but what about the centenary of women’s suffrage, which Churchill attempted to thwart during his time at the home office by ordering the force-feeding of his prisoners? Is this really the time to celebrate such a man? Is any?
Strangely enough, the film this resembles the most is Downfall, that great reenactment of Hitler’s last days. In that 2004 film too, the audience surrogate character is a young and inexperienced secretary thrown into proximity with an unpredictable and larger-than-life leader. But Downfall was produced by a nation with an ability to criticise their past, to willfully explore their murkier icons rather than prop them up. To deconstruct rather than imitate. Until British cinema is ready to look objectively at the figures of its past, films like this one about Churchill offer little stimulation other than as examples of nationalism.
The Post may use its do-gooder liberalism as a way of pacifying its audience, but at least it doesn’t actively propagate the myth of a monster whose good luck drowned out their recklessness. At risk of sounding controversial, I’m rooting for Get Out.