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Review: The Post

February 26, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The term “Oscar bait” has become a common and arguably slightly overused pejorative to describe a certain type of adult drama.  But Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which was rushed into production in March of last year with the full intention of releasing it in time for awards season in December, is the very definition of Oscar bait.

While pretty much everything about The Post is decent, at least from a purely technical standpoint, the film also feels bland and uninspired.  It reeks of being the type of stodgy prestige picture that is made with the sole purpose of getting awards, and Oscar voters predictably lapped it all up.  Not only did Meryl Streep score her 21st Oscar nomination for The Post, but the film itself is in the running for Best Picture.  So in that regard, the choice to rush it through production worked exactly as they wanted it to.

The film focuses on the Washington Post’s choice to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, a series of classified government documents obtained by military analyst turned whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), that outlined collusion on behalf of multiple Democratic and Republican administrations to keep the Vietnam War going for political gain.  Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor of the Washington Post.  The bulk of the story involves them obtaining the documents and wrestling with the choice of whether or not to publish, knowing that doing so will not only risk their careers and the paper itself but could also put them in jail, with the New York Times having already been ordered not to proceed in printing any more of the papers by the Nixon administration.

Steven Spielberg made the film while in post-production on his next big movie Ready Player One, and this tight turnaround shows in the finished product.  The filmmaker struggles to find the same balance between politics and character drama that he achieved so well in Bridge of Spies, and The Post also lacks the expansive, absorbing qualities of Lincoln.  The film feels stagey and workmanlike, serviceable but not exactly memorable.  The technical elements courtesy of his frequent collaborators are adequate, but fall short of being outstanding.  Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is fine, and the music by John Williams is decent, but not his most memorable work.

The screenplay by Liz Hannah, which was touched up by Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer, feels heavy handed and is too on the nose.  The film lacks inherent suspense, partly because we already know the outcome of the story, and partly because the approach to telling the story is so cut and dry.  This is a movie about corruption at the highest levels of government to keep a war going that they knew they couldn’t win, despite the fact that it was costing thousands of American soldiers their lives, and yet for the most part it lacks a pulse.  What’s missing is the human element that made Spotlight work so well.

There are too many scenes of Graham and Bradlee speaking in self-congratulatory tones about the importance of their work, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue is made up of the sorts of exclamations and expositionary talk about what they are doing that only really exists in the movies.  The cast is made up of a veritable who’s who of famous faces and recognizable character actors, many of whom get one or two scenes to strut their stuff, while for the most part just blend in as part of the gigantic ensemble.  Bob Odenkirk is the best in show, bringing the most nuance to his role as lead reporter Ben Bagdikian, where as headlining stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep deliver the exact same type of performances that we can expect from them, for better and for worse.

Tom Hanks is decent here, delivering the sort of haggard every man role that he is known for and does well, but he has left more of a mark in his previous collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  As for Meryl Streep, I actually found her usual hand-wringing histrionics to be a distraction from the character she is playing here.  She has a tendency to play things in a melodramatic way, from her measured movements to her overly precise line deliveries, and I never entirely believed her in the role.  I always felt like I was just watching Meryl Streep.  I have actually started to prefer her in more comedic roles like Florence Foster Jenkins or Ricki and the Flash, where she can go over the top without it distracting from the story.

All of the elements were here for an exciting film, which is precisely what makes the limpness of The Post so disappointing.  The film is addressing some major themes about the importance of transparency around government actions, the need for the press to be critical of those in power, and the dangers faced by both whistleblowers and reporters in trying to get the truth out into the world, but it largely handles them with kid gloves.​  The film also gets bogged down by its own inflated sense of self importance, trying to use the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers as an allegory for the importance of the free press in the age of President Trump.

The problem with this allegory is that it feels overly simplistic, not least of which because the news organizations of yesteryear that this film celebrates have largely gone the way of partisan spin, and are no longer the glowing beacons of truth and freedom that they once were.  The film was rushed through production and released now to capitalize on the popular narrative that the free press is under attack by Donald Trump, when in reality a big part of why Trump won, and the reason why he is even able to discredit the press so easily, is because the mainstream media was already in such disarray when he seized the moment and entered the presidential race.

It’s hard to even begin to talk about the free press in the modern age, at a time when the networks and newspapers are now essentially all owned by a handful of corporations who have a monopoly on the media.  The majority of the news is controlled by the same group of billionaires and conglomerates, who are all competing for ad dollars, with both sides often presenting the stories in a way that fits their own agenda.  Even the Washington Post, which literally gives the film its title, was sold by the Graham family to Amazon CEO and richest man in the world Jeff Bezos in 2013, a fact that should not be overlooked in the struggle for news organizations to be unbiased and hold the powers that be to account.

During The Post, I kept thinking about how much more interesting the film would have been if it had actually focused on Daniel Ellsberg and what he went through to obtain the Pentagon Papers, instead of relegating him to a supporting player who is mostly kept in the background.  The scenes with Bagdikian doggedly trying to track down Ellsberg, culminating in a tense meeting with him in a motel room to collect the documents, are the best sequences in the film.  It’s in these moments that The Post starts to come alive, showing the journalistic thrill of finding a source and pursuing a lead.

There are a lot of layers to this story that could have been explored in a more interesting way.  Graham is struggling to prove herself and be taken seriously as a woman running the company, after acquiring the paper from her late husband, and a big part of her initial reluctance to publish comes from the fact that she is friends with former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who is heavily implicated in the papers for escalating involvement in Vietnam.

But these shades of grey are handled in the most perfunctory ways, used to provide triumphant victories and crowd pleasing moments, which more often than not feel manufactured and ring hollow.  The New York Times also technically faced more of a risk than the Post, as the Times was the first one to break the story.  The last act of the film, where the paper is put before the Supreme Court, feels largely glossed over, leading to a final scene setting up Watergate as the next chapter of this story.  These final moments make it clear that the film is trying to sell itself as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men, but it’s an ending that feels somewhat tacked on.

This is an uncharacteristically uninspired effort from Steven Spielberg.  The problem with The Post is that it is trying to be too many things all at once.  It’s a female empowerment fable meant to mirror the 2016 election, an indictment of Trump’s presidency, and a celebration of the legacy media.  But the film tries so hard to be timely and of the moment, that it actually ends up undercutting the impact of its own story.  This is a historical drama that should have had real stakes, but it’s ultimately little more than a sanctimonious crowd pleaser that has been tailor-made for Oscar voters.

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