THE POST delivers its purported message—press freedom is crucial—with the slick, sleek professional skill set of a typical network “news flash”. As presented under the effortlessly genial, laudable, nigh-unassailable tri-partite banners of Hollywood’s biggest left-tilted guns—-director Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep—the 2017 historical thriller about “The Washington Post’s” 1971 publishing of ‘The Pentagon Papers’—would seem a slam-dunk for Trump-baited crowds of nervous patriots (the real kind, not rabid right-wing skunks), for duly fawning reviews and dutiful awards bait. Mission Accomplished. Uh, make that semi-Accomplished.
While Spielberg’s go-to editor Michael Kahn moves the 116 minutes at a brisk pace–the scenes of the actual old-time printing press process are fascinating—the essential subject matter ever-timely (the 4th Estate vs. Power’s secret scams) and the acting is fine, the script feels pat, rushed and diffuse, and the tension between its dueling elements flattens out. Writer Liz Hannah was inspired by “Personal History”, the 1997 autobio from Katherine Graham, owner/publisher of the Post, and the script alternates between Graham (Streep) coming to grips with her personal life’s priorities against the demands of the paper’s public mission. Meantime, editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) orchestrates the effort trying to out-scoop “The New York Times” on multiple administrations lies about the bloody morass in SE Asia. Graham’s compromising cocktail crowd include Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, adding this to his superb JFK in Thirteen Days), while Bradlee’s point man Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, subdued and very effective) risks career tracking down leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Nixon is not happy. *
Hannah’s focus on Graham’s woman-in-a-man’s-game battle is counter-balanced by co-scripter Josh Singer (writer of two better journalism flicks: Spotlight and The Fifth Estate). Where the screenplay and film as a whole self-sabotage is too blithely sidelining The NY Times, which did the lions share in breaking the story and—more damning— using (or letting) a safe 45-year old victory to effectively rehabilitate the current Washington Post (now a culpable warmongering rag, like the disgraced NY Times) in the eyes of a new, fresh, lie-pulverized audience. The very title of the movie is a giveaway. Seeking some of the same high ground as All The President’s Men, this pattycake ‘challenge to power’ comes off more like an Establishment reassurance that everything is basically sound. Do you buy that?
Sop-nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture and Streep for Actress (of course–her 21st nomination, and, good as she is, it’s the weakest of the lot: a lazy gimme from the Academy to showoff sisterhood solidarity in The Year of The Woman). Made for $50,000,000, it pulled $174,400,000. With Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon and Michael Stuhlbarg. John Williams dials it down on the score, his 28th collaboration with the tireless director. Janusz Kaminski’s muted color scheme dulls it to a sea of browns and greys; visually it drains as much vigor from the drama as the editing works to inject.
The Post ultimately plops on the doorstep with the impact of today’s featherweight newspapers: a few flashy headlines for teasers, a few minutes scan of “in-depth” reporting that can be mined deeper by courageous real journalists doing actual objective work on a relative few Internet sites not beholden to corporate power, and a bunch of loose, distracting filler. “My decision stands, and I’m going to bed.”
* It was not The Post that won the Pulitzer for the Pentagon Papers, but the Times. Blasting the dam on the 30 years of deception about a war that killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese (mull the figures for a millisecond) in publishing The Pentagon Papers was arguably more important than pulling the fingers out of the Watergate dike (bumbling a burglary). But folks, that was then…..