THIS IS A massively entertaining, minor movie.
Spielberg has spoken at length of his need to tell this story – of the deeply important role of the free press, of truth, of moral conviction – at a time when the leader of the (so-called) free world is only too eager to create a world of “alternative facts” and even more eager to demean the Fourth Estate as a place of fake news; as “enemies of the people”
“The Post” centers on the events around the leak of The Pentagon Papers by insider Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys from “The Americans”). The Papers, penned by then Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) revealed the White House’s long-held, and long-hidden knowledge of the futility of the US involvement in Vietnam. For years, the Papers showed, the White House (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) had been systematically and cynically lying to the nation, even as it sent its sons to muddy graves.
The contents of the Papers – so damaging to the credibility of the President – were initially published by The New York Times. It was a major coup for them. But after the government banned (essentially censoring) further publications, the baton was passed to The Washington Post under the leadership of its gung-ho editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and its initially hesitant, brow beaten owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).
Spielberg’s narrative follows the evolution of Graham (who inherited the newspaper after the death of her husband) from society hostess, retreating to the parlor with “the girls” while the men clustered to discuss “important matters” (A role her contemptuous male peers permitted her) to self-confident, empowered and fearless leader. As you’d expect, Streep looses herself in this layered and nuanced role. She’s never anything but entirely believable either as the timorous woman who’s supposed to shut up and know her place, engulfed in board meetings by a swarm of sober suited men, indifferent to her views or presence; or as the woman who finally finds her voice and her moral conscience and decides to risk her stature against Nixon and his gang of thugs.
Graham’s battle to defend and publish the truth at all cost was no mere ethical decision. Her decision risked personal incarceration or corporate bankruptcy. This is a story about the (literal, financial) cost of truth. If it was found guilty of contempt of court, the value of the Post brand would have been severely tarnished and a planned Wall Street offering would probably have been a disaster. The dilemma that she faced was the choice between facing the financial cost of publishing v facing the moral cost of not doing so…between her responsibility to her shareholders v her responsibility to the nation.
Spielberg is a marvelous storyteller: with an economy of style (there’s not a wasted word or scene in the movie) and a lyricism of movement (his camera swoops and tracks his characters like an omniscient god), he lays out the critical milestones and leaves it up to volumes of emotions at Streep’s command to entangle us in the ethical drama of the crisis unfolding.
But Streep’s well-written multi-leveled character is not matched by Hanks’ one-note Jimmy Stewart impersonation. As you’d expect, Hanks is watchably solid. He’s a character seemingly untroubled by doubt; almost blind to the shattered lives and the downside of potential failure. Indeed, he’s so Tom Hanks, the perennial good guy, that there’s never a moment of genuine, heart-thumping, palpable tension. So that the real, dark threat of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s malignant evil remains an abstract aural ghost somewhere dimly in the background.
And yet, there’s much in the film that’s delicious to behold. There are clusters of finely balanced scenes that seem to tell the story in visual nuggets: scenes that morph from panelled rooms with crowded, black suited, po-faced men to ones of airy flowery salons with well heeled chiffon-embraced society women to the sunny outdoors where throngs of excited cheering young women herald a new day; all with Graham at the swirling centre. And there is the tactile feel of the press: the oily, inky hands of typesetter letters, columns of newly printed newspapers swirling up and up as if to a heaven beyond, and the thick frames of sculptural lead locked into place…as if the truth then demanded that heavy anchor of lead in deliberate contrast to the ephemeral truths of our digital words
It’s nice for Spielberg to have left off editing his newest sci fi blockbuster “Ready Player One” now in the works, to remind us of the need for the Fourth Estate to be on the side of the governed not the governors, as it so gloriously was in the past. But he’s preaching to the converted. “The Post” is Spielberg’s long editorial cry designed to stroke our liberal egos in the bubble of our Trump/Koch/Fox News/Daily Telegraph threatened world where truth is an enemy of the state.
But art must do more than safely play to its gallery of believers. If journalism speaks truth to power, art must also challenge us and reframe our perspectives and threaten the status quo and destabilize our smug beliefs. It must expose the mechanisms of what drives behavior and the irrational forces that influence our decisions. “The Post” is too tame, too well mannered to live up to these demands. Its high-mindedness will cause no sleeplessness in this long night of democracy’s slow demise.
I went expecting delight and surprise. I found much to delight in. But of surprise…that was thin on the ground.
THE POST. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight). With: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys. Production Designer: Rick Carter (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “the BFG”). Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski (“The BFG’, “The Bridge of Spies” etc)