The Post

The pen vs. the sword

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

As it is with The Post, so it is with many Steven Spielberg movies. We sit there, a little interested, a little bit detached, thinking, well, this is OK, nothing special, but perfectly fine. And then—who knows how he does it?—the camera moves in on a face, the soundtrack swells, and suddenly half the crowd has tears in their eyes, and you’re one of them.

In The Post, the moment comes when the political columnist Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) gets word of a Supreme Court decision concerning a newspaper’s right to publish material gleaned from whistleblowers. She holds the phone and repeats to her colleagues the decision of Justice Hugo Black: that America’s founders affirmed freedom of the press “to serve the governed, not the governors.” And if someone could put a mirror in front of your face as you watch this, you’d be surprised at your own transport and wonder.

Spielberg is so good at this sort of thing that the question raises itself: Is he feeling it, too, or is he just a master manipulator? In a way, the question is immaterial—the movie is the movie, however it’s made—and yet it would be nice to know if we’re all just that easy.

Spielberg crafts another moment, almost as effective. Publisher Katharine Graham leaves the courthouse after testifying on behalf of her newspaper, and a phalanx of young women watches her walk down the steps, in speechless awe. Did it really happen that way? Probably not. Is the scene so obvious that the ghost of Frank Capra himself would call it corny? Oh yes. But Spielberg knows something about movies, and that tableau, obvious though it may be, is lovely.

It also hammers home the feminist nature of this real-life journalism tale. The Post is set in 1971 and deals with the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a leaked secret report proving that just about everything presidential administrations had said about the Vietnam War was a lie. By this time the New York Times had run some stories, but they’d been silenced by a court injunction. Now it was up to Graham whether to risk violating the court order by publishing the papers in the Post.

As played by Meryl Streep, Graham is a woman from an earlier time who became the boss only because her husband died. The newspaper, owned by her father, was in a sense part of her dowry—and she took it for granted that her husband should be in charge. Now that it’s all hers, she has to push through her own insecurities and the stridency and condescension of her board of directors in order to find herself. The Post is a rare coming-of-age film, in that it’s about a woman’s coming of age in her mid-50s. Yet for middle-aged women of that second-wave feminist era, this was not an unusual phenomenon.

The Post is on safe ground when it focuses on Streep as Graham—tentative, slightly affected, but growing by the day—and with Graham’s relationship with her gruff, hotshot editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, against type but winningly. The movie’s challenge is the journalism story, which is not as clear-cut as Watergate and is therefore harder to dramatize.

In fact, as a story, the whole Pentagon Papers saga has everything against it. The revelations were about the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, but Nixon was now president. The papers didn’t represent one story, but a number of stories. And the stories themselves were complex, not as simple as dirty tricks, a break-in and a cover-up—or, as in Spotlight, priests molesting boys. Also, the reporters didn’t have to dig for the story. It landed on their lap, thousands of undigested pages, which they had to read.

These challenges can’t completely be overcome, no matter how many times they crank up the John Williams score, and so the movie sags in the middle. Still, when Spielberg has to bring it home, he does. If the intention was to send audiences out feeling inspired about journalism and its function in a republic, consider that mission accomplished.

Finally, it hardly needs to be said, and yet it needs to be acknowledged, that everyone connected with the film was thinking about the story in terms of today’s events. The Post was filmed in a hurry—principal photography began at the end of May—with the intention of celebrating an institution and a profession under constant attack by the present administration. As such, The Post is not just a pretty good Spielberg picture, but mainstream Hollywood’s first response to life in the Trump era—the trickle before the flood.

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