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How to Watch 'The Post' and 'Darkest Hour'

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How to Watch 'The Post' and 'Darkest Hour'

Lee Feran

Small Wars Journal cross-post with Code & Dagger.

How to Watch

The Oscars are long-over, but you're one of those people who still likes to catch up on all the top nominees, right? Well, among that select group are "The Post" and "Darkest Hour," which are both fine movies but, to me, incomplete.

Both suffer from the same shortcoming: too much distance between the story you're seeing and the real stakes for the thousands of other people whose lives hang in the balance. For "The Post," it's soldiers dying gruesomely in the Vietnam War, which we only see in a brief introductory scene. For "Darkest Hour," it's the impending massacre of British soldiers at Dunkirk, which we kind of see in an equally short scene a little way into that film.

Both movies neglect this literal life-and-death aspect of the historical account in favor of much talking and dithering by power brokers a world away, whether it be in the elegant home of The Washington Post publisher Kay Graham or the gray corridors of power in 10 Downing Street, London.

And again, these are both solid films because there is much drama to be wrung out of that dithering and some of the best actors alive are doing that dithering. (Each film also has at least one scene that is painfully, stupidly sentimental, but that's neither here nor there.)

Luckily for us, there are some easy fixes that bring the high-mindedness of those films back to the muddy earth, for the better:

Before 'The Post,' Watch Ken Burns' Vietnam Documentary, and Afterwards, 'All the President's Men'

I know it's a lot to ask, but if you have something like 10 hours to spare, dedicate yourself to watching the entirety of Ken Burn's latest documentary series "The Vietnam War." 

"The Post" centers around the Pentagon Papers, a classified U.S. government study that essentially laid out how badly the Vietnam War was going and how president after president misrepresented that fact to the American public. Some headlines from the Papers are noted in the "The Post," but the movie is not really about the documents themselves, but about Meryl Streep's Graham and her fateful decision to allow their publishing in her newspaper.

"The Vietnam War," however, shows viewers what the dryness of the Pentagon Papers in print could not -- the human toll in lives lost, ruined or forever scarred on both sides. The documentary depicts in unsparing detail the misery brought on the Vietnamese people and U.S. servicemembers by the seemingly never-ending war and how that conflict was beginning to tear America apart domestically as well.

Only with that ongoing suffering in mind can a viewer really appreciate the urgency and impact of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and therefore the actual bravery of The Washington Post (and The New York Times before it). It deepens every boardroom argument when you realize that while Graham is sparring with her advisors, Americans and Vietnamese half a world away are dying.

Secondly, I mentioned The New York Times there because the Times actually broke the story and published the Pentagon Papers first. Much of the "The Post" is about how The Washington Post was struggling to catch up to that momentous journalistic coup.

Which, seems to me, would make a movie about the Times and its star reporter Neil Sheehan at least as interesting a film on its own. In fact, "The Post" is not much about reporters at all, but centers on Graham and the higher-level tussle to publish.

For that, at least until someone decides to make a major Hollywood movie about what I assume were Sheehan's nail-biting escapades in investigative journalism, we have "All The President's Men," a fantastic thriller of a film about two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal. Minor spoiler here, but the final scene of "The Post" actually shows the break-in at the Watergate Hotel that started that whole ugly episode in American history, so pressing "play" on "All the President's Men" immediately after "The Post" flows perfectly and gives the audience a look at how reporters go about getting their hands on these kinds of secrets.

And this may be a controversial opinion, but I preferred Jason Robards's Ben Bradlee to Tom Hanks's.

Before 'Darkest Hour,' Watch 'Dunkirk'

It's fortunate these two movies were made so close to each other, and that both are so well done in their different ways.

For the same reasons as with "The Post," "Darkest Hour" is much more deeply felt with a better sense of what is happening to British soldiers while politicians back-stab and maneuver in wartime London. Churchill's stubbornness, at times bordering on madness, in the face of impending disaster is all the more stirring if you spend more than a few minutes with a small group of young fighters across the water in France and begin to truly understand the human toll of each decision he makes.

Therefore, Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is essential viewing beforehand.

That film is an odd, experiential work that follows three distinct story lines in the days before and during the evacuation of British troops French shores by a flotilla of English civilian boatmen. Lined up on the shore with the German army on all sides and nowhere to go, "Dunkirk" paints a picture of utter hopelessness and certain doom.

At one point British troops packed like sardines into transport ships hear a sinister buzzing overhead and quickly realize it's a German fighter plane preparing to fire on them. The dozens of soldiers literally cannot move and, in their desperation, can only crouch down a bit and hold onto their helmets while rounds from the plane's machine gun tear into the men around them, seemingly at random.

It's absolutely terrifying, and it makes every hesitation and perceived political power trip in "Darkest Hour" absolutely infuriating. "Men are dying!" you want to yell at the screen when a bureaucrat tries to sabotage Churchill's desperate plans.

The curious way in which the timeline for "Dunkirk" works means it actually could be edited into "Darkest Hour" in a satisfying way, I believe, for a five- or six-hour long epic that would be better than each film. But as it is, watch "Dunkirk" first.

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About the Author(s)

Lee Ferran is an award-winning national security reporter. Prior to starting the national security related site Code and Dagger, Lee was a reporter and editor in the ABC News investigative unit. Follow Lee on Twitter @leeferran.