It is utterly admirable that a guy like Steven Spielberg would, while in post-production on another film, decide to shoot one strictly as a response to the current political climate and offer a full-throated defense of the press in said film. His latest, The Post, should perhaps scratch the itch for many looking for a story of a journalistic coup against a totalitarian-seeming administration, and undoubtedly it will shuffle the coals in the heart of many of a dormant and downtrodden journalist to go out into the world and make readers of all peoples (it played like gangbusters at the screening I attended, which was mainly full of staff from the Boston Globe instead of crusty critics like myself).
Yet something was missing from The Post that I still can’t quite articulate (you bet I’ll try, though), even though I enjoyed myself while I watched it and very much agree with its timeliness and message. It just feels kind of inert.
The film concerns the events surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the early ’70s, and long story short, it’s a doozy, though it’s one that is slightly overshadowed by the Watergate break-up and the subsequent cover-up in the national consciousness. Under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Department of Defense commissioned a study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, stretching from the then-current Nixon administration all the way back to the days of Harry Truman, and it details a series of withering analyses about our country’s chances and could, if exposed to the public earlier, potentially saved a great deal of lives.
A man named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine and RAND corporation employee, has enough of this, and decides to leak the documents in a truly painstaking fashion (taking out pages at a time so they could be photocopied), and when the time was right, he sent copies of the first set of pages to the New York Times. The editor of that paper, Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg), shepherded the story along with a series of writers, and published it to the embarrassment of Nixon, who sued to prevent the paper from publishing any more information gleaned from the papers. This began a short and intense fight in court, and it seemed the fate of the free press was on the line. Sounds like one hell of a story, right?
Yeah, The Post is actually about the Washington Post during that time, whose executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) has his ass chapped that he got beat to the punch on such a magnificent scoop, and Bradlee’s dealing with his demons as well (specifically regarding his closeness to JFK), and who lucks into the next set of papers when a young woman drops them off at the office. At the same time, owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is planning on taking the company public, so that they can expand their operations. Graham never really planned on taking the role, as her husband, who had been groomed by her father as heir to the Post, committed before he could take over.
So, essentially, she’s a high society woman put in a situation that seems over her head, and few truly believe in her judgement and ability as an owner (it’s a Meryl Streep role, so I guess you can figure out how that will turn out in the end). So she’s conflicted: On the one hand, she wants to publish the papers (to improve her stock standing, to stand with the Times, to potentially help the CIA take down Nixo– just kidding) and on the other, she doesn’t want to jeopardize her future. Her choice could alter the future of newsrooms everywhere, and she knows it. If only she ran the Times, though.
What a story it could have been.
Spielberg, sure enough, has assembled a lovely cast, and uses them to the very best of his ability. Streep is fine as Kay Graham, though I’ve never quite been able to understand her appeal after something like Death Becomes Her, as her performances in films like this rely on her Streepiness more so than any in-depth, innovative or interesting character work (which isn’t to say that this defines her work — just look at what Demme was able to propel her to do in Ricki and the Flash). She sells all of the moments that she needs to, including when she makes the fateful decision to go to print, which is captured in a gorgeous, almost soft-focus fashion by Janusz Kaminski. Her best scenes come opposite the terrific Greenwood, who’s playing Graham’s close friend and confidant McNamara (and helps to nod at some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Graham’s government ties), as she’s pretty much forced to betray him in order to do what she thinks is right. Hanks fares a little less well as Ben Bradlee, mainly because you can feel Hanks straining his muscles to act a little scummy and cynically, and he doesn’t quite pull it off, especially given how he alters the register of his voice.
But there’s some truly excellent supporting performances as well from figures on the legal side (Tracy Letts as the Post’s board chair and Jesse Plemons as an inexperienced lawyer are both swell) and in the newsroom (Bob Odenkirk and Carrie Coon do fine work here), so it’s an engaging and interesting enough film during the runtime.
I am not old enough to have the same nostalgia that other critics have for rolicking smoke-filled newsrooms bustling with energy, even though I briefly worked at one (in what feels like a decade ago), but the environment is captured nicely, with there being a quiet intensity in the backgrounds of each and every frame. You’re always aware of the stakes of Graham’s decision, even outside of her own potential jailing, in that each and every one of these people clacking away at their typewriters could lose their livelihoods because of her choice. It’s also just a naturally magnetic environment for filmmaking, given that it forces an ensemble to be together for whole swaths of scenes, and Spielberg even knows that the blue-grey visual palette of the newsroom needs a switch-up after a certain point, which is why the ensemble moves to Bradlee’s house for the back half of the film (and I know this is probably what happened anyway, but it’s still a good choice to portray it as it was).
Less successful is his portrayal of Nixon and his White House, who barely make an appearance outside of disembodied voices on telephone lines and the back of a Tricky Dick look-alike obscured by shadows in the windows of 1600 Penn, who bangs on a desk in time with recordings of the president angry on the phone. It keeps the threat of the Imperial Presidency away from us at all times, looming in the background, and it’s hard to raise the stakes.
What’s odd about The Post is how it sort of plants a demarcation point in Spielberg’s career for me. When paired with the aesthetic trappings of his next film, the ’80s-homaging and geek-friendly Ready Player One, The Post doesn’t just seem like an aberration anymore, one inspired by Trump and his cronies. Spielberg, to an extent, has always been in the business of nostalgia, but his pining has always been for the innocence of childhood and its particulars- adventure serials, broad comedy, the Twilight Zone — but those have slowly evacuated his work over the course of his career.
What once was a young man fondly looking back on his childhood is now an older man looking back on when he was a young man, and this type of thinking colors these new films. He’s not looking to play kick the can, he’s looking to be the ass-kicking Steven Spielberg who made Raiders, dammit, and with this film, he’s looking to be the conscionable young person he once was, though endowed with the convictions that he’s been nurturing over the course of his life. His daughter, Sasha, makes a cameo — she’s the person who gives some key paperwork to a member of the Post’s staff — and it’s a bit of a red herring: It’s a slight acknowledgement Spielberg recognizes that he’s not the person in front of the barricades wielding a Molotov cocktail against state troopers anymore.
Instead, he’s a fusion of Streep and Hanks, whose commitments to righteousness outweigh their shortcomings — inexperience (in Streep’s case), and cynicism (in Hanks’). This also answers the question about why the filmmaker didn’t make the movie about Daniel Ellsberg or the New York Times, who were the actual actors in this story, and that was because they themselves were in a position to do something grand. And given the milquetoast nature of much of the film, where characters mainly sit down and talk or stand and talk all about their importance of their actions and their beliefs, his predicament — of the old man deciding if he wants to be with the squares or with the radicals — doesn’t make for very much drama. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a retweet: The Post isn’t bad or totally lifeless, it’s just kind of flat.
Follow Nick Johnston @onlysaysficus. Featured image via 20th Century Fox.