The Post might be Steven Spielberg’s most prestige-lite filmmaking endeavour yet, a tick-box exercise that doesn’t do a whole lot wrong (until the last twenty minutes, at any rate), but feels like it has no true reason to be, and no real inspiration behind it (other than the evident boy-with-his-trains thrill of showing the workings of a good old-fashioned printing floor).
Spielberg can churn these worthy, earnest based-on-real-events tales out, and they’ve been his bread and butter in fishing for critical and peer approval since the mid-80s, but they’ve only served to underline a mind that prioritises sentimental moralising over insight, and spoon-feeding, and the entertainer’s instinct, over nuance and shading (Bradley Whitford said of the director, “There’s a collision of showmanship with material that could otherwise be very preachy and dry”; the dry part I can buy).
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t often get it nearly right, or produce very competent, easily digestible pictures, even when hamstrung by his own aspirations to be more incisive or just plain smarter than he actually is. But it’s telling that his most successful biographical affairs have tended to foreground his Peter Pan complex (Empire of the Sun) or tilt towards the breezier, populist leanings from whence he started out (Catch Me If You Can). There are fine moments in Munch, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, but they’re none of them classics. And The Post, even by that straining-for-greatness-but-failing standard, is merely a solid movie.
It’s one where you can see the Spielberg wheels turning in a similar manner to his forthcoming remake of West Side Story (because he’s always hankered after doing a musical, the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the best part of that movie – being as close as he’s got thus far). A movie about investigative journalism really scratches that All the President’s Men itch (back then, he was content to deliver Jaws crowd-pleasers, and the better filmmaker for it) and also means he can massage his (mildly) bleeding social conscience, expressing his (mild-mannered) contempt for the Trump era of #fakenews (the Washington Post discussion of The Post is a good example of assuming the legitimacy of press reports simply because you don’t like who they’re aimed they’re aimed at; #realnews is effectively the news you approve of).
It also offers him the chance to throw his weight behind the equality movement in his (mild-mannered) way, presenting Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as a feminist poster girl they didn’t know they had. Oh, and it means he gets to shoot Vietnam footage (the only real good reason for the opening), in New York, because he doesn’t get about much these days (very Kubrick: see also Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), so he can boast depicting the three big gun twentieth-century conflicts.
The ’berg famously signed on to the screenplay by newcomer Liz Hannah, subsequently honed and expanded with Josh Singer (his credits include The West Wing, Fringe, The Fifth Estate and the far superior Spotlight – so may be the latter was Tom McCarthy’s influence), and motored into production in double-quick time, such that it arrives before Ready Player One, which he shot first. In the process, he dropped The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, due to an inability to find a suitable young lead).
The story of the Pentagon Papers is sufficiently diverting, sufficiently movie-worthy, but that’s all it is, at least, on the side of the telling its director, Singer and Hannah have come down. It could only be a pale shadow, a distant runner-up, to the big event of Watergate and its peerless dramatization in All the President’s Men, such that Spielberg essentially invites you to move onto the main event following the coda. It’s an admission of defeat, if ever there was one, that this is, at best, an appetiser.
The Post, despite Spielberg’s protestations to the contrary, is a heavily nostalgic affair, yet it does occasionally show a glimmer of the potential to be something more than a paean. While hearkening to a time when telling, and breaking, news really stood for something, and even instructed change, there is tacit acknowledgement that the media has always been tied hand and foot with politics, rubbing shoulders with the seats of power, as the schmoozy parties held by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and the hobnobbing by Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) with Jack and Jackie evidence. It’s an area that might have been explored further, since it rather leaves one with the impression it was only this brief window – the glorious ’70s – where journalism really stood for anything, before making a sharp retreat.
Had his desire to comment on fake news, and powerfully corrupt figures in the Oval Office due an imminent ousting – Steven, in his naivety, counts only the powerfully corrupt figures in the Oval Office as a problem if they’re Republicans, which is why he’d have been very happy for the powerfully corrupt Democratic candidate to enter the Whitehouse – not overwhelmed him, a truly formidable account of the Pentagon Papers might have been forthcoming.
We are, after all, due a rousing story of whistle-blowers blowing whistles for the greater good, post-Snowden (Oliver Stone’s dreck biopic certainly wasn’t that). I was instantly engaged by Matthew Rhys’ performance – I haven’t seen The Americans, so his was a refreshingly blank slate – as RAND man Daniel Ellsberg (aided by Anthony Russo, played here by Sonny Valicenti but very much an incidental presence), found working as a military analyst for the State Department during the opening Nam scenes.
Ellsberg’s journey, from PhD graduate with an influential paper on decision theory to Road to Damascus conversion in respect of the government’s activity, to coming forward publicly following a two-week manhunt and his subsequent trial, would surely make something more dramatically meaty than the stew Spielberg et al have cooked up.
Ellsberg faced up to 115 years in prison under the 1917 Espionage Act, but in a signal of further repercussions to come, the case was declared a mistrial on the grounds that the government had illegally spied on the whistle-blower – well, that wouldn’t happen today; today they’d legally spy on the whistle-blower, along with everyone else, and no one would care either way – by breaking into his shrink’s office to try and get some goods on him and wiretapping him without a court order. There was even a plan by White House Plumbers to incapacitate Ellsberg at a public rally, dosing him with LSD to make him look like a hopeless druggie. I guess Snowden figures are passé now, though (there was a 2009 documentary about Ellsberg, who remains an active activist, but a recent and thorough doc has never stopped a feature before; right, Bob Zemeckis?)
Alternatively, the New York Times side of the affair, of the first impinging of a newspaper’s freedom since Lincoln’s presidency, referenced in the picture, is also a strong one. But since this project originated with the desire to showcase Graham’s achievement, and the detail of the Papers came later, the makers were rather stuck with the less glorious publication but the more noteworthy characters. Of which, there’s the recognition factor of riding on All the President’s Men’s forty-year-old coat tails, complete with a new Bradlee in the personable form of Hanks this time, with the added bonus of the publisher we never got to see that time.
Except that Hanks, as patentably likeable as he is – and gruff, but mostly likeable – can’t banish the spectre of the formidable Jason Robards. And Streep, professional as she is (she can even professionally claim never to have had an inkling about Harvey’s heinous acts, which is some straight face), offers a performance alternatively resonant of the scattiness of Florence Foster Jenkins and the composure of Maggie, suggesting her bag of tricks isn’t, in fact, limitless (still, that’s no impediment to the Academy recognising her for the umpteenth time).
Spielberg, despite his continuing professional relationship with Hanks (five features and counting), and the greater fame of Ben Bradlee, is respectful enough to Hannah’s intent to position The Post as hinging on Graham’s go ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers, and this boardroom side of the business probably looked on paper like distinction enough from that other Washington Post film. Unfortunately, he and his writers rather blow it.
Not entirely, but following the first time we see Kay entering an all-male board meeting and being tongue-tied before the gender-biased (but not nepotism-begrudging) directors. The scene is effective and squirm-inducing, and tells you all you need to know about the uphill struggle she faces. So what goes wrong? Kay endures a learning curve that finds her deferring to trusted chairman Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts, an excellent piece of “Now where have I seen him?” casting) before finding her own voice. But Spielberg then undoes that good work by repeatedly succumbing to the hurdle of “show, don’t tell” in the sloppiest, soppiest affirmative manner imaginable.
Tony Pinchot Bradlee (Sarah Paulson) delivers an impassioned sermon to Ben concerning Katharine’s bravery (Tony should know, as this is the first time in the picture she’s been called upon to do anything but serve coffee and sandwiches). If we hadn’t already received and understood the message of ingrained patriarchy and sexism firmly and clearly during that board meeting, and successively every time Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford, unstinting with the condescension) opens his mouth, Kay follows it up with a mawkish speech to her daughter (Alison Brie) in the very next scene.
After this point, any moment where Kay stands up to her bullying board members is characterised as a “You go, girl!” moment of the cheapest kind, as if everyone involved has lost any level of self-respect for the material and the character. It doesn’t stop there, as Coral Peña’s law intern (for the prosecuting council, no less) tells Kay how inspirational she is and how proud she is of all that she has done, and that she should carrying on sticking it to the man, or rather, to the men.
As Kay emerges victorious on to the steps of the Supreme Court Building, she is met by a throng of women, symbolically venerating her for her achievement, even though they haven’t the faintest idea who she is. At which point, I was extremely ill. If you treat your audience patronisingly, like children, then you don’t deserve applause… but I guess you do merit Best Picture nominations.
If there’s a problem of tone and directorial overkill with the feminist theme, there are other structural issues that also dampen The Post’s effectiveness. Spielberg being Spielberg, he cannot resist the lure of coddling the story in the “heartfelt”. All the President’s Men is so good in part because it is so honed, so fixed in its’ gaze. The Post has no attention span. Spielberg wants to take it all in, not least the distinctive domestic arrangements of Graham and Bradlee. After all, how else do you humanise them? You certainly can’t achieve that by just focussing on them doing their jobs effectively. Not unless you’re a really good writer or director, anyway.
The consequence is that The Post dips in and out of focus. Individual scenes are sharp and engaged, and then we drift off again. The highly talented ensemble cast frequently get short shrift. Why on earth would you cast the brilliant Carrie Coon and give her absolutely nothing to do (apart from the thankless task of reeling off the Supreme Court verdict)? David Cross makes an impression simply by being David Cross (and making it look like he’s let himself go), while Michael Stuhlbarg is only noteworthy for having shockingly distractingly-dyed hair. They’re largely wasted.
A few performers are given a chance to breathe, however. Bruce Greenwood continues to deliver the goods flawlessly no matter what, almost – almost – succeeding in humanising Robert McNamara (in contrast to the depiction here, McNamara had dinner with a NYT columnist the day after the first publication, telling him he thought they should continue publishing). Jessie Plemons, ever Matt-Damon-like, is marvellous as the frustrated legal advisor trying to stave off The Washington Post’s imminent destruction at the hands of an injunction-happy Government.
And Bob Odenkirk has, in a weaker year, and with a bit more attention to his subplot, a Best Supporting Actor worthy nomination in the bag as Ben Bagdikian, embodying shoe leather journalism par excellence as he tracks down Ellsberg and is tasked with the challenge of bringing two boxes full of documents back to Washington by air. The makers clearly missed a trick here (again, spreading yourself too wide, so leaving out the real juicy bits), as Bagdikian, worried about doing his back in, had to search about for a rope to secure his materials and had to check the second box as hold luggage.
And even – in a moment the director felt was unbelievable, but surely no less so than beating us senseless with his inanely amped up progressive message – had a chance meeting with a journo due to join his team, Stanley Karnow, who wanted to sit next to Ben on the plane and realised the goldmine he was carrying when Ben’s reluctance became clear (“Got what, Stanley?”) Odenkirk makes the most of every moment he’s given regardless, be it dropping his change in his would-be-covert attempts at contacting Ellsberg at a rank of payphones, or attempting to deflect Plemons’ insistent battery of objections.
Spielberg’s at his best dealing with the graft, so he probably should have stuck more closely to that side. He’s in his element when the team are pouring over out of order papers (the papers were also incomplete or illegible). In contrast, he rather fumbles the challenge of presenting The Washington Post as going it alone. They were only ever in second place (Ellsberg leaked documents to thirteen other newspapers, and Spielberg shows Ben producing supportive headlines from a brown paper bag on the very same day The Washington Post goes to press.
Which rather undermining the movie trying to make this look like an achievement of equal stature to their subsequent Watergate reportage; the Boston Globe published four days after The Washington Post, duly receiving its own injunction, and the day after that, The Chicago-Sun Times began publishing without Justice Department action, the day after that further newspapers followed suit). Other elements, such as the threat posed to the flotation by Graham’s decision and the actual Nixon tapes providing period punctuation, don’t feel as if they’ve been integrated with sufficient acumen.
Some of these decisions are evidently made in consciously trying not to be another All the President’s Men, but the problem of focussing this story on the same paper and leading figure means that it can’t help but be compared in the same breath. The Post is as watchable as you’d expect from Spielberg (ironically, it’s his popcorn fare that has come a cropper of late; see Indy 4 and The BFG, or rather, don’t). But his Achilles heel is more pronounced than ever, be it the distraction of family life sucking the momentum out of the (news) room or the attempts to be relevant and socially and politically aware coming across as if he’s pleased as punch at having handed in his school essay project on time, compete with the thrust of his argument emboldened in red highlighter (further highlighted by John Williams – my God, that emotive, tinkly piano. Please, make it stop, John).
Spotlight made the case for the continued relevance of conscientious investigative journalism much more effectively in a low-key, reserved manner a couple of years ago and won a Best Picture Oscar for its pains. The only surprise with The Post shouldn’t be that it stands a chance of winning (it doesn’t), but that it was nominated at all.