The Post (2017)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal
Written by Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Music by John Williams
Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński
Edited by Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar
DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox
Annapolis Bow Tie Harbour 9 (1:58)
One should never learn one’s history from the cinema, at least that’s what we’ve heard over and over ever since cameras first began documenting any era other than our own. Accurate historical narratives and pure entertainment simply have a difficult time co-existing. In most cases (unless we’re talking about documentaries – another discussion for another time), something’s got to give. Not only does Steven Spielberg’s The Post both entertain and give us a history lesson, it also invites (if not demands) us to examine our own times and situations in light of it. I’m not sure any film could tackle all three of those aspects and come out a winner in each category, but Spielberg gives it his best shot. The question is, is that shot good enough?
So if you don’t know your history, here’s what you need to know going in to The Post: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood in the film) proposed the Vietnam Study Task Force in 1967 in order to document the history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This massive document covering thousands of pages, more popularly known as the Pentagon Papers, was produced without the knowledge of then President Lyndon B. Johnson or Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The document includes top secret classified material that was leaked first to The New York Times, which was ordered by the courts to stop publishing anything about the document, material which blew the lid off what was really going on – and why – in Vietnam. (You can read more about it here.) At the crux of The Post lies this dilemma: should the reports and stories about the Pentagon Papers be kept secret in order to protect American security or does the press under the First Amendment have the right to publish them? Or put simply, can the President legally control the press?
Of course this question has direct bearing to our current situation. There’s (hopefully) no need for me to go into the political nature of America at this point. The film is not only timely, it’s urgent. At least that’s how Spielberg felt about it, stopping pre-production of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara in order to produce and direct The Post, feeling that it was not a film that could wait for two or three years.
As the film opens in 1971, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) has taken over as publisher of The Washington Post from her deceased husband Phil Graham. After several years (Katherine Graham actually was the de facto publisher of the paper in 1963, but formally from 1969), Graham’s paper is about to be listed as a publicly-traded company, creating much uncertainty for the future. Mrs. Graham is confident her paper and staff are just as good as The New York Times, especially under the leadership of editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), but that’s where her confidence ends. In an industry filled with intimidating men in expensive suits, Graham is tentative and indecisive. So when she’s presented with the dilemma of whether or not to run a story on the Pentagon Papers, she’s faced with the most important – and possibly dangerous – decision of her life.
It’s so rare that we see Meryl Streep portraying a character who has such low self-confidence, there’s almost no precedence for it. Yet she delivers superbly in a role that requires her character to second-guess herself at every turn. Spielberg generally places her in a seated position while men trying to exert their influence tower precariously above her. In several scenes we see Streep nervously moving her hands and fingers, but in one marvelous moment, she’s seated facing Bradlee (who’s standing) and we see steel begin to emerge from beneath her timidness: the fingers of her left hand fidget while her right hand grips the chair like a vice.
Perhaps he’s done this before and I’ve forgotten, but Spielberg shoots several scenes (many of them involving Streep) with two characters in the midst of disagreement or conflict. Rather than giving us back-and-forth one-shots of each character, he keeps the camera moving as if we’re watching a pair of boxers, showing the audience that while these characters may speak in a civil manner, turmoil is stirring underneath.
Much of the film’s wonderful tension comes from the era itself. We almost forget how difficult calling someone could be in 1971, until we see reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) trying to make a call from a pay phone, lining up his change and unable to write down the phone number he’s been given. Many other aspects of the era we may have forgotten about (or never even knew, depending on how old viewers are) include telephone extensions, actual typewriters, board meetings without Skype, the workings of a printing press, messengers running documents back and forth across town, and simply locating someone or some place without GPS.
The film excels on many levels: acting, period detail, pacing, suspense, and much more, but the film is far from perfect. Some audiences may feel that too much explaining is going on. Comparisons are both inevitable and unfair, but a similar film like All the President’s Men by and large refrains from explaining too much to the viewer, while many of the conversations in The Post seem to dwell on the consequences of each set of actions being considered, something most attentive audiences don’t need spelled out for them. One scene in particular that lingers far too long involves Graham telling her daughter (Alison Brie) how much the paper and her family mean to her, weakened even more by an overly emotional musical moment from John Williams. It doesn’t get into the sappy territory of Always (1989) or the “Kick the Can” episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), but it gets pretty close.
Part of this over-explaining causes the film to push its message too forcefully too often. It’s practically a given that messages delivered with urgency are often heavy-handed. It’s almost as if Spielberg wants to make absolutely sure that we understand, “Hey, what was happening then is also happening right now!” Had he not felt the need to rush the film into production, perhaps he might’ve addressed some of the film’s weaknesses, but all things considered, it’s still pretty darn good. With all the attention many other Oscar contenders are receiving, don’t forget about The Post.
Photos: 20th Century Fox, Roger Ebert, AV Club, Hollywood Elsewhere