Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Post

Grade : A Year : 2017 Director : Steven Spielberg Running Time : 1hr 56min Genre : ,
Movie review score

A common motif in Steven Spielberg’s historical films over the past 25 years has been to tell stories about people at center of key moments in history, and to see what they do. From Oscar Schindler to Abraham Lincoln to Roger Sherman Baldwin in “Amistad” to James B. Donovan in “Bridge of Spies” to Kay Graham in “The Post,” Spielberg has seemed to relish the tells stories of people under a pretty big microscope, faced with pretty big choices that could determine the direction of human history (and often, American history), and watch them as their put their reputations on the line for a greater good. I’ve contended for many years that the past quarter century of Spielberg’s work since “Schindler’s List” is probably my favorite run of his career, regardless of how much I love the great films he made prior to that landmark, and it’s because, time and time again, he has put his own reputation out there at the service of not just a more adventurous cinematic landscape, but for films that seemed to mean more to him in terms of who he’s become, and what’s important to him. That sounds like a narrow perspective on his pre-“Schindler’s” films, but there’s a depth and breadth of purpose to his later work that has just been fascinating, and exciting, to watch.

At a moment when American media is both at its most omnipresent, at its most divisive, and under attack from all sides of the country for either what it is doing, or what it isn’t doing, “The Post” is profoundly relevant for this time, and seems like a key turning point in the relationship between journalism, and the people in power. Without the watershed moment depicted in “The Post,” there’s a chance of no Woodward and Bernstein breaking Watergate, no Iran-Contra coverage, no Abu Grab, no Catholic church abuse investigations, and no Trump-Russia investigations by the press right now. “The Post” is not only Spielberg’s “All the President’s Men,” it also leads in to Alan J. Pakula’s journalism classic by ending at the moment of the Watergate break-in, leading to another key battle between the Nixon White House and The Washington Post that would be a watershed moment in American history.

Spielberg’s film starts off in Vietnam in 1966, as an advisor to then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is on the ground doing research of how the military campaign is going. His findings are not good, and McNamara is frustrated with the outlook of military intervention in Vietnam. And yet, when they land on the ground in Washington, he puts a smiling face on for the press, and claims optimism. We next see the advisor, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), leaving the Pentagon with volumes of a study on American intervention in Southeast Asia over the decades, and making copies of them. Cut to 1971, and we go to The Washington Post, where the owner is Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who took over the paper after her husband passed away, and is getting ready to go public with the company on Wall Street. That has been a source of stress for her, as the bankers are valuing initial shares as lower than the board of the Post would prefer, and, while a couple of dollars per share doesn’t seem like much, when multiplied by the number of shares, it means a great deal for the people doing the work at the paper like Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Bradlee has his own issues, as not only is the Post being shut out of the wedding of Nixon’s daughter, but their focus as a “family paper” and local paper has meant leaving some big fish stories for them as scraps to be picked up. When The New York Times begins publishing articles about the Pentagon Papers Ellsberg was seen copying at the beginning of the film, Bradlee and his reporters are, once again, picking up the scraps, but when the Times gets in the middle of a legal battle with the White House over their articles, and the Post finds itself with 4000 pages of the papers, an opportunity presents itself for Bradlee and his reporters to do what they’ve wanted to do.

That last paragraph began to focus an awful lot on Bradlee, but make no mistake, this is more a film about Kay Graham, and the position she finds herself in, and the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is all the better for it. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle that Spielberg is fitting in place, but all of the most intriguing ones (aside from the issues relating to freedom of the press) begin with Graham. To focus on Bradlee would have been to just be doing his “All the President’s Men,” but because the film is about the choices Graham has to make, there’s a heightened tension to them, and a larger discussion being had. From the very beginning, the men around Graham have no confidence in her ability to run The Washington Post, and it’s mentioned constantly that her father, who ran the paper, left it to her husband to run, not her, and there is constant pressure to sell. Graham understands this criticism well, and knows how best to handle it, but you can also see how it wears on her. That makes it a far greater gamble for her if they publish about the Pentagon Papers than it would be for any man in her position- for Bradlee and the reporters, he’ll just move on to the next job, but for Kay, it would ruin her, and everything she’s tried to build for her family, including her daughter (Alison Brie) and her two kids. It’s a nuance that is lost on Bradlee until his wife (Sarah Paulson) explains it to him in the heat of the greatest tension of the film, when the paper is up against the deadline to print to make it for the next day, but he gets it immediately, and one of the great things Spielberg does is not portray Kay as a “victim” but someone who understands how this world is, and is ready to fight back against it, however frustrating it can be, and it leads to some fantastic moments for Streep, who seems to run on autopilot at “pretty good,” but requires some meat on the bones to turn in great work, which Spielberg, Hannah and Singer all provide for her. And her moments with Hanks’s Bradlee revel in the pleasures of two great actors playing off of one another while also understanding the dynamics between the characters to a “t.”

Another key component of the film is the way powerful people, and the press, cozy up to one another, and how that lead to a laxing, of sorts, of journalistic standards when it came to covering them. Even more than the freedom of the press issues at the center of this film, this is probably where “The Post” is at its most vital for the here and now. We’re seeing the failures of holding powerful people accountable at all times all too painfully right now in America, although much of the press is starting to change course, but it is not just a failure known to the era of the 24-hour news cycle. In “The Post,” both Kay and Bradlee have to come to terms with the fact that, while they have had deep affection for their powerful friends like former presidents Kennedy and LBJ- and, especially in Kay’s case, McNamara- those same friends were lying to the American people about a war that was resulting in young men from not just the average American family, but family’s they knew (or their own sons), going over and dying for a lost cause. It’s one of the key gut check moments for Kay, especially, because it was McNamara’s study and its release will ruin his reputation, and it’s an important turning point in the film, because Kay is now putting herself further out on that branch people are waiting to see break on her. Again, Streep nails this material, and shows the weight of these choices on Kay beautifully.

I mentioned how “The Post” shares common thematic ground with other Spielberg films earlier. (The one this feels most like, structurally, is “Lincoln,” because of the ticking clock of not just the paper’s public offering, and a one-week time frame allowing investors to back out, but also the court battle with The Times that puts Kay, Bradlee and their reporters against a deadline, like the vote in the House of Representatives was in “Lincoln.”) That Spielberg continues to find fascinating stories to tell with this idea, of people having to do great things at historic crossroads, is a credit to him as a storyteller, and his ability to continue to deliver greatly entertaining, and emotionally resonate, films of this sort is a credit to the people he has around him- John Williams, Michael Khan, Rick Carter, Janusz Kaminski- who have developed such a short hand with him as collaborators that they instinctively understand what he wants from them each time out. Having a cast- not just including Streep and Hanks but Brie, Paulson, Greenwood, Bob Oedenkirk as Ben Bagdikian (the Post reporter who gets their hands on the Pentagon Papers) and the rest of this cast that fills important parts of the story- that believes in this story is the last part of the equation, and Spielberg, ever the master, is always able to putting the pieces together for an enlightening, crowd-pleasing movie for the ages.

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