The Post: Sentimental Journalism

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

** ½ (out of 4)

Steven Spielberg’s The Post – a film about The Washington Post’s battle with the Nixon Administration over the publication of the Pentagon Papers – has two primary objectives. In the character of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the assertive editor once interpreted by Jason Robards, Spielberg seeks to examine journalism’s role in modern society (à la Spotlight). And in the character of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher who steered the Post through the 70s, Spielberg also wants to depict the difficulties women face in male-dominated workplaces.

To be sure, the film’s treatment of both of these themes begins quite promisingly. With the former, portions of the story play like familiar, All the President’s Men-esque thriller – an approach greatly aided by Janusz Kaminski’s long takes and low-key lighting. But these moments are complemented by the script’s noteworthy attempts to cut journalists down to size. Far from being idealistic crusaders, after all, Bradlee and his reporters spend a lot of time worrying about money and taking resentful potshots at The New York Times, their bigger, more prestigious rival up the coast. And although the script features several moralizing monologues about the First Amendment, it suggests that these speeches act as compensation for the guilt Bradlee and co. feel over the collusive relationships they once had with powerful Democrats. Spielberg’s recreation of Bradlee’s mantelpiece prominently features a framed picture of Bradlee embracing Jackie Kennedy – a detail that, among many others, reminds you of the fragility of journalism’s purported commitment to “the truth.”

Meanwhile, Graham’s story initially proves moving for two reasons. First, Meryl Streep delivers yet another bravura performance; she effortlessly captures the essence of a woman who’s painfully conscious of her lack of self-confidence. Second, Kaminski’s camerawork provides a remarkably fitting illustration of Graham’s gradual increase in assertiveness. To take one example: after she first gives Bradlee permission to publish the Pentagon Papers, the camera zooms out from a close-up of her face, and the resulting shot makes her look small and unsure of herself. Later, in a crucial scene, she rejects her male advisers’ suggestion that she reverse her decision – and as she walks away, the camera executes a similar zoom-out on the men in the room. We realize that the tables have turned; it’s now the men’s turn to feel small and insignificant.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

In spite of all these good moments, however, The Post eventually disappoints for several reasons. The first stems from its uneven portrayal of female characters. Streep’s Graham clearly serves as a symbol of women’s advancement; in a sense, she’s a representation of how much society has to lose when female voices go unheard. Yet the movie’s attempts to promote such notions of gender equality are undermined by its concurrently half-baked depiction of Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson). For most of the movie, after all, Tony turns out to be little more than a cipher. Her only important moment comes when, midway through the film, she abruptly delivers a speech about “brave women” – a scene that plays as though the pressed-for-time scriptwriters decided that forcing a character to recite a pseudo-excerpt of The Feminine Mystique counted as “development.” Women, in Spielberg’s worldview, are important – except when you’re too lazy to pay attention to them.

The bigger problem with The Post, however, is the same one that afflicts most of Spielberg’s “serious” films (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln): it eventually overplays its hand. Towards the end of the movie, for example, there’s a scene in which Graham exits the Supreme Court, and as she does so, she passes a line of beaming young women. The import of this moment is clear from the image itself – but Spielberg chooses to tack on glimmery lighting and soaring background music, and the end result comes off as needlessly heavy-handed. Worse yet, the rest of the movie abounds in equally overdone moments: the most egregious offenders include a superfluous sequence dedicated to showing a printing press at work (complete with soaring background music) and a scene in which the camera closes in on a reporter reading the Supreme Court’s final decision in favor of the Post (again, with soaring background music).

In the end, this pervasive lack of faith in the audience’s intelligence cancels out whatever nuance Spielberg otherwise strives to introduce. His stubborn insistence on giving us a villain we can hate – his shots of the White House make it look like a fenced-off fortress; Nixon only makes his presence known via sinister voice-overs – dovetails with his refusal to ever question Bradlee and Graham’s basic goodness, collusive relationships be damned. And the outcome is a film whose initial subtlety ultimately gets run over by forceful, black-and-white sentimentalism. Such an admiring conception of journalism comes at an apt time – and there’s no questioning the sincerity of Spielberg’s intentions. But you need only watch something like Ace in the Hole, Sweet Smell of Success, or Nightcrawler to appreciate the simplicity underlying his worldview.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

***

The Post (2017)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg

Running Time: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for language and brief war violence.”

Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal

Written by: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer

Directed by: Steven Spielberg