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The Post – Steven Spielberg ****



The Post – Steven Spielberg ****

The Post is good; occasionally very good and well worth seeing. That it does not live up to the hyperbole of its promotion is due to many factors; not least Steven Spielberg himself.

Spielberg is unsurpassed as a storyteller especially of adventure and action narratives. He is not a Director of ideas: his characters seldom have ‘inner lives’ of much substance or interest – to be is to do. These instincts therefore enhance his quality as a filmmaker; for what film does best is show us what happens and at best enable us to feel and share, to participate in the danger, suspense and excitement of fast moving events. Film, like Spielberg, is not inherently a medium of ideas: unlike say the novel which gives us unique access to the inner thoughts and lives of the characters within it. It is rare to find Hollywood Directors capable of exploring ideas within characters of complex and interesting inner lives.  The best current example is Aaron Sorkin in Molly’s Game.

Richard Linklater is another Director with this rare gift as Waking Life showed long ago. For European Directors, especially French and Swedish, ideas excite them and ‘innerness’ lies at the centre of their art: Bergman and Godard come to mind. Kubric was perhaps the most obvious exception to this general Hollywood pattern. It follows from this difference in emphasis that the richer the characters’ inner lives the more satisfying and compelling can be the relationships that can be convincingly portrayed.

With The Post Spielberg had another, but related problem: the story of the publication by the Washington Post in 1971 of the classified Pentagon Papers has little inherent dramatic pace. The climax to the film is when someone makes a decision: a difficult, high risk, challenging decision to be true – but a decision none-the less. Spielberg and especially Meryl Streep as Kay Graham proprietor of the Post whose decision it was, make the best of this but it inevitably lacks dramatic punch and real suspense is hard to generate.

Spielberg’s straight, chronological, historical docu-drama approach to the story doesn’t help him either: lawyers, newsmen and politicians arguing about national interest and threatened legal action are harder to inject pace and tension into than say the obvious comparison to this film – Alan Pakula’s masterpiece, All The President’s Men. The Pentagon Papers were known to be authentic and of known provenance. The dramatic hooks of uncertainty were therefore confined to; who leaked them (soon resolved); and the moral, legal  status of the leak and the leaker. The Post is more about lawyers and politics and Newspaper ownership than journalism per se.

By contrast ATPM had a rollercoaster ride of a criminal act; investigation, multiple characters, some known some not; constant edge of the seat uncertainties; and demonstration of critical journalistic values like evidence, confirmation and verification: plus at times real danger and genuine threat. While ATPM showed you investigative journalism at its best within the broader legal/political context; the actual story The Post portrays is almost entirely context – should classified documents be published in the Public interest under the constitutionally validated right of free speech? Starting with this massive disadvantage Spielberg’s straightforward historical docu-drama approach gave him absolutely no room to explore and develop the seriousness of this issue and its implications, especially contemporary.

The Pentagon Papers were a report commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert Macnamara from Daniel Ellsberg a Military Analyst for the quasi-independent RAND (Research and Development) Corporation. President’s from Truman to Kennedy had been worried about Chinese communist ‘domino’ expansion through Vietnam. Kennedy had approved a build-up of US Troop ‘Advisors’ whose non-combat mission gradually ‘crept’ but it was essentially Lyndon Johnson, always a hawkish anti-communist, who began a wholesale escalation of US involvement leading to the lethal quagmire that dominated US social and political life in the 70s.

Ellsberg’s report, discussed with Macnamara and known to Johnson and the military, concluded that the chances of victory in Vietnam were highly unlikely and Ellesberg was troubled that information broadcast to the people, claiming good progress in the war was false. He leaked his report to the New York Times who published extracts. After 3 days the Nixon Administration obtained a court injunction to prevent further publication.  Enter the Post: Chief Editor Ben Bradlee vastly experienced, long-time journalist and his staff had been pursuing the contradictions between White House claims and the reality on the ground in Vietnam. With the existence of the Pentagon Papers in the public domain and their continued release now blocked, Bradlee sets his own staff on obtaining copies. Copies from the NYT would have been subject to the NYT injunction so he seeks and gets copies from Ellsberg direct.

Kay Graham had become Proprietor of the Post by default after her husband’s suicide. An apparently reserved private personality she and her husband were close to the Kennedy’s and many of the Democratic political establishment including Macnamara, a personal friend. Kay’s board were running scared about the commercial and legal consequences of the Post upstaging the NYT by publishing and risk being damned. Publication would also harm long-standing friends in the establishment.  It is Graham’s dilemma in trying to balance these conflicts with Bradlee’s passionate commitment to publish that forms the dramatic arc of The Post. Streep’s performance here is key and as one might expect, is beautifully judged. The dramatic scene in which this dilemma is finally resolved is the high-point of the movie and its power and effectiveness owes everything to Streep’s beautifully nuanced, graduated build up to it.

Hanks’ is a dependable, transparent Ben Bradlee without matching the subtlety and hard-edged charisma of Jason Robards in the same role in ATPM. The group playing of the other characters by a well-established cast of character actors that includes Sarah Paulson and Bradley Whitford (West Wing’s Josh Lyman) is sound but has little to work with given a pedestrian, surprisingly clunky screenplay by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski creates some wonderfully evocative scenes of Newspaper production from emphatic hot metal linotyping to the thrilling lines of print copies in falling curving cascades towards the packers, loaders and delivery trucks that rushed out into the night to deliver the news to every street, shop and private residence. You can almost smell the excitement and nostalgic romance of this iconic industry.

Spielberg always disavows sentimentality in his movies; and yet unfailingly demonstrates it every time. It is a fatal flaw here which undermines the much hyped claim to contemporary relevance of The Post. None of the vital topical issues of the 4th Estate in the world of Donald Trump is even hinted at: the contrast in latter day treatment of whistle-blowers Chelsea Manning and Andrew Snowden and Ellesberg; the financially terminal decline of the traditional business model the Post represented in the imminent age of the internet and social media. Of course it is true historic distance would have required a more imaginative dramatic structure to at least pose or intimate any of these subsequently emergent threats to Spielberg’s nostalgic hymn to the past. However his treatment of the one central theme of The Post of critical importance today – the conflict between commerce and news value; journalistic standards and revenue optimisation; popularity and truth – is shallow and sketchy.

Nostalgia for the golden age of Journalism and the great independent Newspapers of the past is fine but Spielberg’s approach sadly conflates this with the profoundly important contemporary constitutional issues his story raises. Spielberg treatment gives the impression that his wistful nostalgia for what he implies was the golden age of journalism extends to the constitutional issues the Pentagon Papers raised.  The scene where the Supreme Court’s judgement on the Post’s publication comes through is teeth-grindingly embarrassing, poorly conceived and badly written.

The Post is entertaining but a big disappointment: it might have been the movie that is being hyped – passionate, important and angry at political and Executive abuses: still going on today. Never have the American people needed more a rigorous, effective defence of the rights of free speech and the duty of the US Media including great Newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times.  Spielberg’s historical docu-drama locks his in the past fatally diminished by a sense if wistful regret that holding Politicians and Executive to account belonged to the good old days of journalism.

If you want to see these important issues seriously addressed get the 3 seasons of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant The Newsroom; revisit All The Presidents Men; check out Good Night and Good Luck; and Andrew Rossi’s superb documentary Page One – inside the New York Times.

The failure of The US Media, especially major broadcast outlets to resolve the conflict of interest between ratings and news; shameful pusillanimity in reporting first Iraq and then Afghanistan; and a demonstrable lack of journalistic rigour and principle created the professional vacuum that Trump has triumphantly filled. As with everything he grotesquely exaggerates for cynical personal reasons: the US media, especially the great Newspapers are not purveying ‘Fake News’ but they gave him enough ammunition to give the claim some credence. It is much easier to lose trust that it is to get it back.

Yes The Post is well acted entertaining fun: but we and the American people needed more: but Spielberg was never the Director to provide it.




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