In Spielberg’s The Post, hindsight and nostalgia reign

The Post, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, seems to show us the sausage-making process of American landmarks. The Pentagon Papers, it shows, were hastily copied in an advertiser’s office adorned with movie posters, then debated over plates of spaghetti and sandwiches, tossed from cardboard boxes to opportunistic hands, and pondered over by wealthy, politically-connected people with excellent posture and a vague sense of duty. Spielberg, multitasking between this and work on his upcoming Ready Player One, appears to have all the materials before him: a rich array of characters, a timely story, the winds of history propelling him forward. And so this, the pre-release pre-reviews all suggested, is a film for the age of disinformation we’re living in — another one of those movies we apparently need, will deliver unto us a gasp of oxygen in these polluted times.

The Post began life as a spec script by Liz Hannah largely based on a biography of Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (played here by Meryl Streep); Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer was brought in to expand it to what the trades are billing as a bit of a two-hander with Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Spielberg felt he had to direct the script, but also knew it posed some problems: how to convey the time-suspended weight of the Vietnam War, now known to three-plus generations as nothing more than a story setting; how to transcend the digital divide that has swept away a more studious notion of journalistic expertise; how to do it all over a truncated production schedule. No one is calling Spielberg a distracted director (after all, he delivered two films before Christmas back in ‘11 with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin), but where his other work this decade has grown into what you might call a late period, or even mature style, here he seems to swerve away from truly working through what the material demands, instead relying on reflexes. So domestic scenes at the Bradlee residence seem to take place in a set a thin wall-divide away from Hanks’s Rockwell living room in Bridge of Spies, the Post office is a major-activity zone for Spielberg to careen through like Scorsese at the end of After Hours, and, worst of all, in lieu of an enemy besides journalism’s ever-present publication deadline, we get a marionette Nixon seen only in silhouette, and the writers and editor of the scoop-beating New York Times initially depicted as gray-lit gargoyles in a secret lair.

When he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski aren’t pushing into rotary phones, file folders, and etched names on the side of buildings, Spielberg mostly treats the story here with a kind of recessed respect: we see dinner functions and Oak Room afternoons unfold in simple profile and over-the-shoulder shots, giving us unobtrusive space to watch an ensemble of actors work. The major role is Streep’s, who we see, relentlessly, professionally sidelined: advisors assemble to talk over her, in her office; pre-meeting chatter goes dead as she enters a boardroom; men walk three-abreast in hallways, leaving her to trail behind. The Post is, if nothing, dedicated to showing what it means to be the minority in a room, even giving Hanks’s Bradlee an unflattering depiction as he dismisses Graham in their first meeting with the contempt of someone used to getting his way. But very little of this coheres into anything dramatic or surprising; it’s merely committed to being “on the right side of history,” which means setting the story up into sides — including that Times vs. Post rivalry we’re supposed to believe in. Hanks, all chin and sloppy accent, feet on desk, declaims the name of Times reporter Neil Sheehan as if it were a curse, even though a couple years prior the Post was printing Sheehan’s reports from the AP desk, and the Post’s reputation, by the end of the film, counts on other papers reprinting their articles.

Many reviews have asked this question: why the Post? (And why the title, which seems to reduce the film to the status of an advertisement for, you know, the Washington Post?) If you look up a reference edition of the entire Pentagon Papers at the VPL, you’ll see its cover emblazoned with the NY Times insignia. But there’s clearly enough to work with — even something more compelling in sticking with the paper that finished second-place. Yet if you go to this expecting a journalism movie, you’ll be disappointed. It couldn’t be more different from Spotlight, the film whose success arguably made this one possible, which established its story on a person-to-person level, showing journalists doing the footwork and research and interviews that funnel directly into the body of an article. Here, Bradlee yaks and goads and feels most motivated by resentment, and Graham’s storyline is dominated by her emotional allegiances and the caged experience of inheritance she feels. For a film that started with Graham at its centre, it’s surprising how much the film denies her: we only ever see her life interrupted or via monologue, rather than through lived experience. We hear she’s a master of preparation, but never see her fully alive in any domain of her life — it’s easy, it seems, to imagine Bradlee’s chaos, his losses and his inspiration, but Graham remains at a distance; when she needs to convey the importance of her own decision, she refers to the offscreen “boys” of people she knows who have already returned from Vietnam.

Even if it’ll be on the minds of people watching this film, Spielberg never establishes a strong dialectic with the present situation, beyond the promise that triumph is never out of reach — the movie opens with Creedence Clearwater Revival, and closes with, of all things, something in the mode of a Marvel superhero teaser for the events to come.