Spielberg plays it safe with the Pentagon Papers, allowing Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep to carry a film which needed to take more risks.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford
Runtime: 116 mins
Release date: 19 January 2018
The Post ends where the Watergate scandal begins. It’s an acknowledgement of how closely tied Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the political milieu of the 1970s. It also made me chuckle, as I had the absurd image of Steven Spielberg starting a Washington Post Cinematic Universe, setting up his film as a prequel to Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men.
There are obvious parallels between Speilberg and Pakula’s films. The period and the politics, clearly. An early scene has a poster for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the background, which shared a screenwriter with All the President’s Men in William Goldman. And, of course, both films are about journalists uncovering government skulduggery.
But where All the President’s Men is about shoeleather, boots-on-the-ground reporting, The Post focuses on the upper echelons of the newspaper business. Namely, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), The Washington Post’s publisher, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), her editor. With rival paper The New York Times barred from publishing government papers pertaining to the Vietnam War, Graham and Bradlee must decide what to do when the papers fall into their lap.
Hanks and Streep are predictably good. Bradlee is tenacious, described as a pirate by his peers; when asked by an intern if an assignment is strictly legal, Bradlee replies, “What is it you think we do here?” Graham, meanwhile, is a woman caught in a man’s world. But instead of the steel-spined dictator of, say, The Devil Wears Prada, here Streep is uncertain and hesitant. Graham is a woman trying to feel out her own principles, surrounded by men who are, to a fault, so certain of theirs.
Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gain a great deal of pleasure from just watching these two giants of acting do their thing. Much of The Post unwinds like a play, with long uninterrupted takes of characters talking. Unfortunately, Spielberg and Kaminski often get cold feet halfway through these scenes, and revert back to the old shot reverse shot.
This chickening out is indicative of how safe Spielberg is playing it here. Unlike the recent (and superb) Spotlight, which butted heads with the Catholic Church, there are no big players to oppose The Post. Nixon is gone, and everyone agrees that the lies exposed by the Pentagon Papers are a Bad Thing. To be sure, championing the freedom of the press is an admirable endeavour (one character helpfully intones, “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”), but it’s a cause that’s been championed before, and championed better.
There’s a debate to be had about whether stories like this are better served as documentaries or fictionalised dramas. All the President’s Men and Spotlight brilliantly make the case for drama. The Post, however, gives the advantage to the documentary. It mires itself in its characters and forgets to let these events and the issues surrounding them speak for themselves. Good performances and the occasional spurt of engagement can’t help The Post from becoming just another 3 star Spielberg film.