Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Dir. Martin McDonagh

By the time you read this, the publicity and headlines will be that Frances McDormand has been garnered in awards and praise for her role as the mother, Mildred Hayes, of a girl raped and murdered, seeking justice. The praise is justifiable.

She ploughs a straight furrow with a sharp blade and a sharper tongue. Witness her clinical character dissection of the local priest who calls by. She wants justice, and after nine months of seemingly little progress, no arrests or even suspects, she decides to up the ante.

Ebbing is a place where people might not know your face but they know your business. Burning from the inside, flames visible in her eyes, if publicity will help Mildred to get closer to a result, so be it, hence hiring three billboards to draw attention, including the gaze of a TV crew, to her plight.

McDonagh spreads his sharp, sparse and intelligent dialogue amongst all the cast, resulting in a rounded character movie, one in which Woody Harrelson, in his role as Police Chief Bill Willoughby, revels. The fact that he and four other cast members have worked with McDonagh previously may also help to illustrate why the actors seem so at home in their roles.

But there is a more interesting character than Mildred and Willoughby, one who is changed by a series of events and the help and support of other people. Sam Rockwell, playing Officer Dixon, could easily have been the favourite for an Oscar award if the film was 15 minutes longer.

Like an old fashioned western, all the key characters are on view: the lawman, the innocent locals, the strangers passing by. There is even a set piece featuring the town dentist.

As evidenced in his direction and/or writing of earlier films such as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh likes to tinge his films with a darker element. In this offering, McDonagh provides as many twists in the plot as the roads around Ebbing, but perhaps he pushes things one reel too far with its malevolent paths along which justice is twisted with vigilantism.

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The Post

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Given that one of the world’s most powerful leaders, Donald Trump, uses social media to broadcast his views and that sales of printed matter are declining, why would anyone be interested in a film about a newspaper, even if that place is Washington, USA?

Furthermore, the story is placed in the early 1970s and covers incidents that were undoubtedly extremely relevant to the people of USA and Vietnam, but by and large remained a footnote to the rest of the world at the time. But its core themes are universal: should a newspaper have the right to print items deemed ‘top secret’ by a government, and should whistle-blowers be protected. Indeed, one example of a UK whistle-blower, Sarah Tisdall, was jailed for six months for an act similar to the film’s central storyline, whilst a more recent and familiar name involved with uncovering secrets is Edward Snowden.

In the plot, someone had released a series of top secret files to the New York Times revealing that successive Presidents, including the much-loved JFK, hid the reality behind what was really happening in Vietnam. As the opening battle scene effectively demonstrates, US soldiers were being outflanked, outmanoeuvred and outfought. This part of the film sees genuine tension and uncertainly, which, given Spielberg's experiences on the sets of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, is to be expected.

After Nixon's government clamped down on the NYT to stop them printing further excerpts, decent investigative journalism led to government papers landing at the Washington Post, necessitating a decision to either publish or comply with judicial instructions. Meryl Streep plays the Post’s initially wobbly owner, Kay Graham, whose growing presence as a female leader in a male-dominated environment is emphasised visually by her colourful attire in contract with the males’ dark suits. No doubt Streep drew on her experience of playing Mrs Thatcher. Graham's rise came about by the tragic suicide of her young husband, an act that would unfortunately be replicated with the real-life death of her son.

Bullied to a certain extent by her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham faces a choice between jeopardising her company and defending press rights to represent the governed rather than the governors, in this case Nixon.

Spielberg's liking for swooping aerial shots enhances visual engagement and there’s a solid script for all, resulting in dependable, if unspectacular performances. The only issue was wavering generation of tension throughout its two-hour running time.

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