The Post (2017)
(for language and brief war violence)
Released: December 22, 2017
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
A tale of warrior journalists writ mythic, The Post is the media at its most self-congratulatory.
And Oscar-bait at its most pandering.
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; those were the secret classified documents that detailed the decades-long cover-up of United States involvement in Vietnam. It occurred across consecutive Presidential administrations of both parties, dating from Truman to Nixon.
Originally named The Papers during its hurried production in the summer of 2017, The Post is a title better-suited for a movie more about The (news) Paper that fought to publish the papers.
It’s an underdog story, two-fold: first as the tale of a small, scrappy D.C. newspaper fighting for respect and influence, and secondly about the female publisher-owner who stands her ground against a headwind of institutionalized sexism.
The Post is liberal hagiography of the first order, working in parallel as an indictment of the Trump administration. By contrast, 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 portrayed, framed, written 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 Richard Nixon or any of 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.
Scripted like a history lesson flagrant in its biases, The Post is stacked with sanctimonious declarations about holding power accountable. One side is entirely corrupt, the other is entirely honorable and decent.
Director Steven Spielberg, in a race for relevancy, rushed a screenplay into production that wasn’t fit to print, dispensing of nuance and stretching credulity. Spielberg is a stylist who, aesthetically, doesn’t do realism, but The Post really needs it.
Spotlight, a Best Picture winner two years prior to the release of The Post, is also a true story about journalistic courage; it 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 element.
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’s 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 are revolutionaries. People are told how brave they (or others) are, in flowery accolades more suited for an awards gala speech.
This flowery language of self-import is used to set up decisions and actions as being sacrificial or impossible (or both) before then actually doing them. 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. 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 is too sterling for their 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 whistle-blower explicitly stating his motives, i.e. that the President can’t run the country by himself, not even foreign affairs. Why is that stated so bluntly? Well because our 45th POTUS is squarely in that line’s crosshairs, of course. 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.
I’m just glad that the Academy didn’t fall for it.
Yes, it received a Best Picture nomination and (ugh) a screenplay nod, but the fawning media (who loved this flattery) and its Oscar buzz punditry made it seem as if The Post would be competing up-and-down the list with multiple nominations. The fact that it didn’t — including snubs of Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep! — was very heartening to see.
The Post was selling a bunch of fake news. Thankfully, Academy members didn’t buy it.
- The time between final script approval and the film’s theatrical release was a brisk 9 months, an unheard of time frame for most any movie but especially a big studio Oscar contender.
- The screenplay was written by a first-timer, Liz Hannah. For her, having Spielberg direct it was like winning the lottery (because, essentially, it was). Even so, screenwriter Josh Singer was brought in to polish it up; he had recently won an Oscar for his script of the newspaper drama Spotlight. But the rush to production only gave him so much time (and, for my tastes, not nearly enough).
- Spielberg made The Post while he was waiting for Industrial Light & Magic to create close to 1,500 digital effect shots for Ready Player One, the 2018 film that Spielberg shot in its entirety before he made The Post from start-to-finish.
- This was Meryl Streep’s first on-camera collaboration with Steven Spielberg. She had previously performed the voice of The Blue Fairy in Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
- The Post focuses on the vital role played by The Washington Post in making the Pentagon Papers public, but it was The New York Times that was the sole recipient of 1972’s Pulitzer Prize for journalism, for its publication of the Pentagon Papers.
- All audio of Richard Nixon’s phone conversations that are heard in the film are the actual recordings, not recreations.
- The Post ends almost exactly where All the President’s Men begins; that was the 1976 film about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carol Bernstein who broke the Watergate scandal wide open. The final shot was Spielberg’s way of making The Post a prequel to that classic political thriller.
- In the spirit of subtlety that defines Spielberg Oners, there’s one in a scene between Bradlee (Hanks) and Graham (Streep) about halfway through. They are discussing the JFK assassination and its aftermath. As Bradlee sits on the couch talking, a 53-second shot ever-so-slowly dollies toward him. It eventually stops with Bradlee framed in close-up.