THE POST (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for language and brief war violence)
Released:  December 22, 2017 limited; January 12, 2018 wide
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons

(Now updated in my ranking of The Spielberg Canon)

Nominated for 2 Academy Awards including Best Picture

A tale of warrior journalists writ mythic, The Post is the media at its most self-congratulatory.

Working as a Watergate prequel, The Post is the story of how The Washington Post came to publish what was known as The Pentagon Papers, top secret classified documents that detailed the decades-long cover-up of U.S. involvement in Vietnam across consecutive Presidential administrations, dating from Truman to Nixon.

Called The Papers during its hurried summer production, The Post is a title better-suited for a movie more about The Paper that fought to publish the papers. It’s an underdog story two-fold, first as the tale of a small and scrappy D.C. newspaper fighting for respect and influence, and then the female publisher-owner standing her ground against an institutionalized sexist headwind.

The Post is liberal hagiography of the first order, working in parallel as an indictment of the current Trump administration. News publishers, editors, and reporters are cast as moral defenders of truth, justice, and the American way. These journos may not be wearing capes but they’re often written, shot and staged like they should be.

Indeed, Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) asserts with self-righteous resolve, “The way they lied…those days have to be over.” Hanks delivers the edict more as a call to arms against Donald Trump than the story’s mid-century politicos. It’s Virtue Signaling at its most bald-faced. The film is packed with moments like these, and it’s all a bit too much.

Written like a history lesson flagrant in its biases, The Post is stacked with sanctimonious declarations of holding power accountable. One side is entirely corrupt, the other entirely honorable and decent. Director Steven Spielberg, in a race for relevancy, rushed a script into production that wasn’t fit to print, dispensing of nuance and stretching credulity. Spielberg doesn’t do realism and The Post really needs it.

Recent Best Picture winner Spotlight, also a true story about journalistic courage, took a natural approach to powerful effect. This, however, manufactures gravity needlessly, in ways that range from corny to eye-rolling. The Post is that rare (maybe singular) example where the John Williams music is the film’s most understated aesthetic.

While handsomely crafted in all respects, The Post even fails as entertainment. It’s shockingly milquetoast. The performances in this strained mythodrama rank among the leads’ worst. Hanks’ take on editor Ben Bradlee is a surface level caricature of a scraggily old newshound, right down to the forced gravely voice, and Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham is stately-bordering-on-comatose. Hanks sinks his teeth in too deep while Streep only nibbles.

The remaining TV all-star ensemble is constrained to limited archetypes that exist primarily to tell us, point blank, that they’re revolutionaries. People are told how brave they (or others) are, in flowery accolades more suited for an awards gala speech. Each instance sets up a decision or action as being sacrificial or impossible (or both) before then doing it. Jesse Plemons offers the only grounded perf in the whole cast, and he’s the anxious lawyer!

Nothing’s mundane. Everything is consequential. Even the domestic scenes are overly weighted. Characters verbalize the stakes infinitum. “This is too big!” “We can’t (fill in the blank)!” “We’ll lose everything!” You could almost make a drinking game of variations on, “If X happens, then Y will occur.” With exclamation points.

These aren’t people. They’re barely characters. They’re merely voice boxes for the internal debate of “to print or not to print”, in a script with all the refinement of a first draft. There’s a lot of manufactured drama for a scenario that really didn’t have much, where the Washington Post becomes the default beneficiary of other peoples work and risk.

It aspires to something akin to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay but stripped entirely of snappy, witty dialogue (there’s also a good deal of walking-and-talking oners), or a Frank Capra classic that replaces a necessary and humble cynicism (re: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) with haughty indignation.

The Post pales even more by comparison to the 1970s landmarks it yearns to match, as if syphoned through old Hollywood’s 1930s Hays Code. It feigns the intensity of All The President’s Men, and is too vainglorious to allow for hints of Network’s satirical self-indictment. The Post turns history into lore, taking revisionist liberties to inspire the Trump resistance.

Less problematic but still heavy-handed is how Graham is underestimated by the patriarchy. It’s timely, no doubt, and worth examining, but the male chauvinist dolts are too smug to be truly threatening, and Streep too sterling for such bigoted complacency.

The most interesting wrinkle is Graham’s close friendship with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). It speaks to the incestuous gray areas of D.C. society circles, where integrity is often compromised. The Post could’ve used more complexity like that.

Instead, we get the actual whistleblower explicitly stating his motives, that the President can’t run the country by himself, not even foreign affairs. Our 45th POTUS is squarely in that line’s crosshairs. The entire movie sprays polemical buckshot at will. It can’t even resist a Watergate stinger.

Spielberg wanted to have Hollywood’s first response to Donald Trump. He got it, but at the expense of thematic depth and plausible rigor.

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