Written by: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer Directed by: Stephen Spielberg
While speaking at the golden globes, Seth Meyers joked about The Post by introducing it as a Spielberg directed film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, while an assistant pre-emptively came out with an arm full of trophies. “Not yet, we have to wait,” Meyers responded. That joke was not unlike my own thoughts when I first saw a poster for The Post go up. The sight of it instantly irritated me. “Please,” I thought. “Please say this doesn’t count as a 2017 film.” It’s always irked me that it seems like the bulk of Oscar contending films come out late in the year. It contributes to the sense that the academy awards are not a meaningful celebration of achievements of a year in filmmaking, but a manufactured, self-congratulatory bore. My frustration with seeing The Post advertised went beyond that however. 2017 twisted horror tropes into social commentary in Get Out, it found pastel-colored beauty in tragic circumstances in The Florida Project , and produced a fascinating eerie world in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. These and other films are worth celebrating because they are inspired pieces of art: labors of imagination. And yet films like these could ultimately be ignored come award season in favour of a piece based on true story starring those two actors who always win.
As it so happens, The Post did not win a golden globe for best picture, and there’s a very good chance my fears about its Oscar chances are overly pessimistic. Nonetheless, my frustration has given me pause. Have I simply become too obsessed with a certain kind of film, that I can no appreciate the greatness of works like The Post (or Thor Ragnorak, which I review disappointedly, perhaps due to a bias against superhero films)?
The fact that I am writing this means I have since seen The Post. While it would be wrong of me to deny that my perception of it was shaped by my pre-existing bias, I am nonetheless fairly confident that my instinct about the film was correct. Perhaps it is worth seeing, but, in my eyes, it is certainly no Best Picture.
Streep and Hanks star as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and executive editor respectively of The Washington Post. The story follows their deliberations on whether to publish the pentagon papers: documents released by now famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) exposing the injustice and futility of US involvement in the Vietnam war. The film starts with an action sequence in Vietnam, a sequence which perhaps hints at how the film is bound to go wrong. The Post is no subtle work. Almost every line deals with a political or moral question, or at very least speaks bluntly about the relationships between the characters. In this sense it can be said that The Post aspires to be an action movie: its characters always testing their battle cries. The Post’s problem, however, is that given that it’s cast is lead by high-ups in the newspaper business, people who defend themselves with lawyers, rather than swords and shields, it doesn’t actually have the substance to be an action movie. The Post thus occupies a weird cinematic middle-ground: it’s not written subtly enough to be interesting as a script, yet its characters’ relative power means it doesn’t exactly provide the suspense one would expect from an action thriller either.
Proponents of The Post will no doubt champion its politics. It is an important film, some can argue, in a day and age when the President of the US has presented himself as an enemy of major media outlets branding them “fake news.” The Post champions a press not only as an honourable institution, but one that uses its freedom to challenge the powers that be. Indeed, The Post presents historical facts that show the darker sides of (“not as bad as Trump”) presidents including Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson (and, less surprisingly, Nixon). Aside from these revelations, however, The Post is largely Clintonesque in its politics. The big scandal that the film’s heroic journalists seek to expose is that the US has been fighting a war it cannot win, meaning American boys were sent to die for nothing. No concern is expressed for Vietnamese victims of the war, nor do the journalists question the validity of fighting even a winnable war for the sole purpose of quashing communism. These politics are again, partially the result of who the film chose as its subject. Just as the publisher and executive editor of a large paper don’t exactly live action-packed lives, they are not particularly likely to have strongly progressive politics either. To be fair, social change does usually require some level of change of heart from powerful, non-radical actors, and may be worth documenting on film. This form of struggle, the battle to change hearts and minds so to speak, does not shape The Post either, however While Graham and Bradlee are faced with opposition from their lawyers and investors, they themselves need little persuasion to be convinced that the pentagon papers should be published.
The film does touch on some interesting dilemmas. In addition to its central subject (the publishing of the pentagon papers), it also covers the themes of publicly criticizing friends (Kay Graham is close to the Kennedys, Johnsons, and former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara), and old boys’ clubs. While Streep, as a soft-spoken but stubborn and conviction-driven publisher, and Hanks, as a gruff but idealisict editor, breathe some life into them, these themes are of limited interest. This is again, because they are not stated with due subtlety: the screenwriters lay bare everything they want you to think. Also engaging is Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara. While McNamara’s appearance in the film is brief, his ideological complexity as an architect of the Vietnam War, who nonetheless tries to understand his enemies (as depicted in the regret-tinged documentary The Fog of War) makes his confrontation with Graham the film’s most compelling scene.
Aside from that, I enjoyed watching the reconstruction of a newspaper production machine shot with modern film technology. The film also ends with a strong quasi-cliff-hanger. The Post , however, is ultimately a film that rests on the laurels of being about an inspiring historical moment. Audiences may gravitate towards such films, but they are made at a cost. When writers feel compelled to write without imagination, they may fear to fill in gaps, leaving dialogue wooden. That certainly feels like the case with The Post. The Post may make for a good history lesson, but personally, I’d prefer to see the free-press and anti-war politics championed in a more creative and radical light.