Fantasy and reality

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Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer form a close bond as cleaning ladies in “The Shape of Water.”

I’m not much into movies that are rooted in science fiction or fantasy. I prefer those that are tethered to real life, with real characters and a plausible plot.

But my recent viewing experiences has me rethinking my preferences.

A couple weekends ago, Lori and I saw “The Post.” It was a very good film, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and based on the true story of the newspaper’s legal battle with the U.S. government over the feds’ attempt to prevent the Post and The New York Times from publishing the top-secret Pentagon Papers.

A week later, we went to see “The Shape of Water,” a highly touted movie about a mute janitor who comes in contact with some sort of amphibious creature that’s being held captive at the Cold War-era research facility where she works. I’d seen the trailer and I was pretty skeptical going in, despite the 13 Oscar nominations it has accumulated.

Well. You’d think this veteran journalist would have liked the reality-based movie about the First Amendment better than the fictional one that asked you to suspend disbelief. But you’d be wrong.

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In “The Post,” the 1971 newsroom was authentically recreated with lots of pasty-skinned editors and reporters in short-sleeved shirts and loosened neckties bustling around. Many of them are on the phone taking notes by hand and, of course, many of them are smoking like fiends. Women and minorities are few and far between.

Streep is marvelous as Katharine Graham, struggling to assert herself as the new publisher following the death of her husband Philip in an era when women were still a rarity in executive offices. Hanks is good but not great as editor Ben Bradlee. Definitely a notch below Jason Robards’ portrayal of Bradlee in “All The President’s Men.”

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Meryl Streep, as newly installed publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks, as hard-charging editor Ben Bradlee, are the focal points of “The Post.”

Spielberg tells the story well. Tension rises as the Post, historically in the shadow of the Times, joins its rival in arguing at the U.S. Supreme Court that it has a constitutional right to publish the classified documents. In the face of threatened censorship or punishment, the Post argues that Americans have have a right to know what’s in the documents so they can decide for themselves whether to believe the government’s claims about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

It’s a solid film, obviously based on real events and people and culminating with a landmark ruling that upheld press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. And here I must say I watched it with the pride of having worked in that same newsroom just a couple years later as a summer intern: in 1973, when the Post broke the Watergate scandal, and in 1974, when a disgraced President Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment.

“The Shape of Water,” on the other hand, was pure fantasy. I won’t reveal too much here, but Guillermo del Toro has created a lovely story out of thin air. As director and co-writer of the screenplay, he pulls you in to the lives of three ordinary people — Elisa, the mute woman;  Zelda, her co-worker and interpreter; and Giles, her gay neighbor and friend — who all wind up collaborating in an extraordinary way.

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It’s a modern-day fable, really. The trio of characters lead lives defined by routine and simple pleasures along with disrespect from others. As the story plays out, each of them has a moral choice to make — and at great risk to themselves. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll be rewarded with a story about relationships that shimmers with kindness and friendship, loyalty and love.

Sally Hawkins is a revelation as Elisa. I’d never heard of this British actress, but she is just perfect in a role that takes her from wide-eyed and vulnerable to fierce and fearless. Octavia Spencer shines as Zelda and Richard Jenkins is solid as Giles. Michael Shannon is superb, too, as the villain, a military officer who captured the amphibious creature and mistreats it.

“The Shape of Water” is exactly the kind of film I expected not to like. But, boy, was I wrong. If you’ve seen the trailer, too, and have your doubts, put them aside and go see the film. It’ll move you.

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