I am about to say something that will get me in trouble with a lot of readers, many of my friends, and even some of my family: I loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth installment in the Star Wars saga.
The backlash against The Last Jedi started with the film’s release last December, and has barely let up despite the film’s $1.3 billion box office and 85% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
Detractors say the casino planet sequence was overly derivative of previous Star Wars movies and went on too long.
I concur, but still found it entertaining. They complain of problems with continuity (which I did not notice) and clunky dialogue (dialogue is never a strong point in any Star Wars movie). They hate the indeterminate fates of some characters, especially those played by Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern; I only assumed they will be back for the next film, scheduled for a December 2019 release.
What they hated most, however, was the presentation of Luke Skywalker as a bitter, disillusioned old hermit. Mark Hamill himself joined in this outcry, though he later relented. I can understand the disappointment many viewers felt at seeing Luke, who grew in the first three films from eager young warrior to masterful Jedi, as an elderly cynic who rejects the philosophy he’s lived by all his life. But Rian Johnson, the writer-director for this installment, gives us cogent reasons for Luke’s disillusionment, and Hamill’s performance is very fine, indeed Oscar-worthy (though Star Wars movies rarely receive any Oscar attention beyond music and special effects).
For me, the best scenes are toward the end, between Luke and archvillain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Johnson has given Luke and Kylo quite the history, and he lets it play out thrillingly amid a long, awe-inspiring battle sequence. There are sharp disagreements about the quality of Driver’s performance; I found it solid and interestingly shaded. He is thoroughly believable as a corrupt military leader who appreciates the good but lets his unending sense of grievance lure him into following the bad.
Johnson, a brilliant but idiosyncratic director, has polarized audiences over the last decade with such films as Brick, Looper, and The Brothers Bloom. It is no surprise that some Star Wars fans have rebelled at his vision. I had some qualms; for example, I felt the returning character Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) was a little too stupid as written. Otherwise, I felt Star Wars: The Last Jedi gave me everything I wanted in a Star Wars movie: slam-bang special effects, breathtaking action and characters I could root for. Personally, I think it’s the best installment since A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the two films that made Star Wars an international sensation.
It is inappropriate to write about The Last Jedi without remarking on the passing of Carrie Fisher, who died shortly after filming wrapped. Looking frail and ill, Fisher gives a touching performance as the aging Princess Leia, inextricable from our foreknowledge of her death. The Last Jedi is dedicated to her, and may the Force be with her always.
Not all wars are fought on battlefields. Steven Spielberg’s The Post depicts a war that spun off from another war: Richard Nixon’s battle against the Washington Post in trying to keep it from publishing the Pentagon Papers, which showed conclusively that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.
Nixon does not appear in The Post, except in archival footage, nor is he even president when the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer begins. Flying back to Washington from Vietnam in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) despairingly tells Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) that the war is an enormous mistake. Ellsberg is therefore dumbfounded when McNamara gives a totally upbeat picture of the war in a press briefing just after landing. It is this disillusionment that eventually motivates Ellsberg, five years later, to surreptitiously copy thousands of pages of classified documents detailing U.S. involvement in Vietnam since the Truman administration.
Ellsberg offers these documents to the New York Times, which begins to publish excerpts, only to be stopped when the Nixon White House obtains a court injunction against further publication.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post is in trouble. The paper’s stock is about to go public, a move its executives see as vital to keeping the Post in business. Owner and Publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), having inherited ownership of the paper from her late father and its leadership from her late husband, is unsure of herself. In making decisions, she is heavily dependent on the paper’s board of directors and its top editorial staff, especially Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), its ambitious, smooth-talking editor-in-chief. Bradlee himself is troubled; the Post, he feels, is losing ground to the Times and in danger of becoming a journalistic backwater.
It is at this point that Post Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down Ellsberg, who offers him the same documents he gave the Times. However, there is a serious question as to whether the injunction against the Times also extends to the Post and other newspapers. If the Post publishes the Pentagon Papers, there is a very real risk that the struggling paper could collapse under the legal pressure, and that Bradlee and Graham could go to jail.
The dilemma Graham faces is perilous, but for her it goes even deeper. As the head of the family that owns the Post, Graham is a leading member of Washington society—and a close personal friend of Robert McNamara.
The Post, then, is a profile in journalistic courage—specifically that of Katherine Graham, who went against her social class and even the advice of the Post’s board members to provide the American people with information that was vitally important for them to have. While the ending isn’t without an element of Spielbergian sentimental uplift, Spielberg tells the story well, and his actors are impeccable. Streep once again combines historical and emotional accuracy to a remarkable degree in her portrayal of Graham. Hanks’ Ben Bradlee is less intimidating than Jason Robards’ in All the President’s Men, but still leaves no doubt this is a man who demands the best from his staff, and especially from himself. The supporting cast is studded with first-rate actors including Greenwood, Rhys, Bradley Whitford,
Sarah Paulson, and Tracy Letts. But the standout among them is Odenkirk, whose Ben Bagdikian combines dogged professionalism with a certain endearing klutziness, especially in a scene where he must negotiate a bank of pay phones in an era when the inventors of Smartphones were still in high school.
Some viewers will be surprised that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein play no part in The Post. However, as the film’s last scene wittily suggests, their time was imminent. That scene also suggests that future cable channels and repertory theaters will be running double features of The Post and All the President’s Men forever.
After the battles are fought, the rage remains, and often forgiveness is harder than the war itself. That is the thesis of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, a mournful and deeply moving Western.
Cooper’s screenplay, based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, begins with an epigraph by D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” This is certainly true of the two American souls who are the protagonists of Hostiles: Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a Cavalry officer on the verge of retirement, and Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief dying of cancer. It is New Mexico, 1892, and Yellow Hawk, along with his entire family, is a prisoner at Fort Berringer, where his longtime nemesis Blocker is stationed.
There is no question that the West is still a bloody place. Before we even meet Blocker and Yellow Hawk, we see Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) watch in horror as her husband and three small children are slaughtered by marauding Comanches. Only by chance does she escape their fate.
Meanwhile, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang) gives Blocker his last orders before retirement: accompany Yellow Hawk and his family to their traditional home in Montana, a thousand miles away. Blocker balks at doing anything to help his enemy, but Biggs tells him he can either take Yellow Hawk to Montana or face a court martial.
The reluctant Blocker organizes a troop of men and sets out with Yellow Hawk and his family, consisting of a son, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson. On the way they encounter Rosalie, who is deranged with grief and terrified at the sight of Yellow Hawk. They also encounter the same Comanches who murdered Rosalie’s family, as well as a group of vicious fur trappers and a soldier named Sgt. Wills (Ben Foster) who is being taken to hang for murdering Indians. Wills tells Blocker he did nothing that Blocker didn’t do, leaving Blocker to wonder whether he crossed the same line Wills did.
Despite its frequent gory violence, the overwhelming mood of Hostiles is elegiac, filled with sorrow and regret. Troopers such as Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons) and Pvt. Dejardin (Timothee Chalamet) know nothing of the land they are crossing; others, such as Blocker, Yellow Hawk, Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors) know all too much. One of the most affecting scenes in Hostiles is when Metz confesses to Blocker that he misses the old days, when duty was clear. Now, he says, there is nothing but confusion and death. The shifting perceptions of Blocker, Metz, Yellow Hawk and others are key to the film’s tragic power. Meanwhile, acts of kindness by Yellow Hawk and his family bring Rosalie back to her senses; in the end, she has the most moral clarity of any of the film’s characters.
Hostiles reunites actors from previous Westerns. These include Bale and Foster from 3:10 to Yuma, as well as Studi and Adam Beach (playing Yellow Hawk’s son), who played Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in a series of TV-movies based on Tony Hillerman’s novels. All of them are wonderful, as are the other actors. Hostiles was passed over entirely in this season’s awards announcements, which I regard as shameful. Surely Bale, Studi, Pike, Foster and Cochrane should have received serious awards consideration; so should have Cooper, cinematographer Masanobu Takanayagi and composer Max Richter.
Hostiles recalls many classic Westerns, especially those of John Ford—Stagecoach, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. But at the end of Hostiles, Joseph Blocker makes exactly the opposite choice Ethan Edwards would have made, ending the film on a note of touching, hard-earned hope.