MOVIE REVIEW: The Post
THE POST-- 3 STARS
There is a stream of visual exposition scenes at the beginning of The Post that detail how former Vietnam War military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys, absconds what would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Part of the tedious process involves Ellsberg and his partner Anthony Russo photocopying the 47 volumes of documents after hours in secret, a minefield of paperwork and a haybale of secrets. With tight zooms under searing fluorescent lights probing the workplace machinery from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and laser-sharp editing from Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar to make every lighted Xerox pass look like a blade of righteousness cutting through decades of corruption, Steven Spielberg and his esteemed team of regular artistic collaborators can even make a copy machine look ominous and intimidating.
What isn’t ominous or intimidating, unfortunately, is the film itself. The Post is a verbal spat of clamored principles built with high-minded desire and inconsistent heft. To borrow the copy machine from above, the criticism of The Post could match this website’s review of his Bridge of Spies to the letter and beat. Matching that 2015 espionage drama, this new film is technically sound, safe, and on message, all worthy credits. However, just like Bridge of Spies, The Post is not a challenge for Spielberg or anyone involved. Considering the subject matter and cited history involved, a little provocation could have gone a long way.
The Post outlines the behind-the-scenes actions and decisions of The Washington Post in 1971. After receiving 43 volumes of the lifted study from Ellsberg, Neil Sheehan of The New York Times scooped the world on June 13th by publishing its first article documenting decades of questionable government involvement in the Vietnam War spanning four Presidents from Nixon to Eisenhower. The wave of protests, controversies, and lawsuits set off by The New York Times has every other outlet scrambling to follow-up and expand on the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by top-billed Tom Hanks, leads a newsroom of diligent reporters looking for their own leads and back channels.
The Nixon administration threatens espionage felonies towards Ellsberg and Russo as well as injunctions on The Times to cease publication of classified secrets. Fearing similar convictions and reprisal Post board members and legal counsel (embodied by Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, and Jesse Plemons) urge the controlling publisher Kay Graham (co-headliner Meryl Streep) to avoid this line of reporting. The pressure is coming at a time when her family-owned newspaper is on the cusp of becoming a stabilizing IPO on the American Stock Exchange. Making matters more difficult, Kay is a long-time personal friend of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the embroiled Cabinet member responsible for the Pentagon Papers.
It is plain to see that this film wants to assert itself to be a spiritual prequel to the classic All the President’s Men. The suspense hangs on the tension of shared landline calls, but nowhere near the Pakula masterpiece. Interwoven archival media footage and period-era sound bytes try to give The Post a JFK Lite feel and the sound mix from Gary Rydstrom and his team transform the cranks of a printing press and the pressing of typewriter keys into a staccato to punctuate scenes when needed. For the second Spielberg film in a row, John Williams’s score is predominantly unmemorable and underplayed, especially in the middle section of the film. Save for extended pieces in the opening and closing credits where Williams’s punchy brass and strings are stern, the small talk minutiae and ego posturing of boardrooms, back office, and living rooms overfill the audio air.
When you come to think about it, we are watching one of analog journalism’s greatest stories of a second-place finisher with The Post. Spielberg brings his cinematic paintbrush of heroism to paint these journalists as stalwart patriots of the highest order. The most dramatic and detailed paragon treatment is given, and rightfully so, to Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham. As the marginalized first woman newspaper publisher in the nation’s history, Graham is faced with the heaviest risks of legacy and moral responsibility and Streep’s performance is rock steady.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the ensemble. Despite the presence of Tom Hanks and an outstanding bullpen of character actors entering this story, little to no character development is there to establish why any of these roles and their diatribes are important. No one tests the message to give this film any heat or intimidating peril. Equal to another line from the Bridge of Spies review, the all-American Hanks, in his fifth collaboration with Spielberg, could do this role in his sleep. This is a three-foot putt on a flat and dry green.
The Post feels like Spielberg painting by numbers, continuing a bit of a downward trend for the filmmaker. Folks are praising that Spielberg made a “little film” in under six months from May to November this year in-between principal photography and post-production on his upcoming summer actioner Ready Player One. This was accomplished because it was easy, didn’t require a rush, and still cost a sizable $50 million, not because a director was shedding trappings to do a rough and raw film. The Post is a highly polished quality story gift-wrapped to Spielberg and completed with a precision that is pleasing and purposeful. It is effective, but not affecting or truly demanding for a director, ensemble, and creative team of this caliber.
LESSON #1: THE OBSTACLES FOR WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP-- As aforementioned, Kay Graham’s drive to maintain her family business and combat gender bias comes from delivering a quality product that her contemporaries and the industry at large can respect. Graham does so with what becomes unflappable resolve and bravery.
LESSON #2: THE ONLY WAY TO PROTECT THE RIGHT TO PUBLISH IS TO PUBLISH-- The hard-working journalists and editors portrayed in The Post often feel as though they are the answer to the rhetorical question of who will hold the government accountable if the First Amendment protecting the press is undermined or taken away. That history is repeating itself today and The Post can remind audiences of past challenges and victories in the name of protecting national interests. Declining an injunction on The Washington Post, former federal judge Murray Gurfein may have said it best:
“The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”