When I reviewed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) five years ago, I wrote: “The release of Lincoln so close on the heels of one of the most fractious Presidential elections in history is significant, as this is a film that aims for nothing less than the restoration of our faith in the ability of the political process, corrupt and devious though it may be, to act as an instrument of moral good.” How much has changed in just five short years.
Rather than aiming to restore our faith in the ability of the political process to act as an instrument of moral good as Lincoln did, his newest film, The Post, focuses on the kind of governmental corruption and obfuscation that can only be remedied by external forces willing to take great legal risks. The film’s release follows closely on the heels of an even more fractious Presidential election, one whose contentiousness has not only not dissipated since the transfer of power 10 months ago, but rather has continued into a full, raging boil. Beginning with Donald Trump’s inauguration in January amid frigid weather and spotty crowds that were immediately denied in the new administration’s surreal opening press conference, we have been witness to all manner of social, cultural, and political warfare (I would like to say “conflict,” but that seems to trivialize just how divisive we have become). In our era of “post-truth” politics, we have witnessed white supremacists rallying in public spaces, the worst mass shooting of the past century, the ever-present specter of Russia’s past and continued interference in the democratic process, and intensifying tensions with North Korea, all of which has combined to create a sense of escalating existential dread that is nevertheless neatly deflected with one of the most insidious propaganda slogans of recent memory: “fake news.” Trump had already declared war on the Fourth Estate when he was just a candidate, but now as President he and his minions’ unrelenting assaults on the very idea of a free press has taken on a much more ominous tone. When Sean Spicer declared against all evidence that Trump’s inauguration had the largest turnout in American history, the ridiculousness of the assertion had a kind of surreal hilarity to it that, at the time, we should have taken more seriously. Now, the hammer of “fake news” is used to bludgeon any reporting that one doesn’t like, serving as a set of willful blinders that are in serious danger of making all of us permanently blind.
Along with Amistad (1997), Lincoln and Bridge of Spies (2015), The Post is part of Spielberg’s thematically connected series of films based on American history that demonstrate how unseen machinations orchestrated by those in power ultimately determine so much of our cultural and political lives—call it “The Behind Closed Doors Films.” In Amistad, it was the deliberation of basic human rights at a time when one man could own another based on his skin color; in Lincoln, it was the passage of the 13th Amendment to end slavery; in Bridge of Spies it was the bizarre world of Cold War spy theatrics and secret brokering in which East and West vied for the illusion of victory, and in The Post, it is the tumultuous relationship between the government and the press, which in a functioning democracy are mutually reliant. Of course, for all the paeans of “American exceptionalism,” the U.S. is rarely a functioning democracy, and The Post smartly and adroitly draws connections between the early 1970s, when the Nixon White House was at the height of its divisive power mongering and extra-legal control over the political process, and today, as the Trump White House aims even higher (that is to say, lower).
The dual protagonist in The Post are Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and Bren Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the respective publisher and editor of The Washington Post, which in 1971 (when the film is set) was, as one character describes it, a “local paper—modest margins, modest ambitions,” always “nipping at the heels of the [The New York] Times.” The plot revolves around the events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers.” Those “papers” came from a 47-volume document called United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, which painted in no uncertain terms both the unwinnable nature of the war in Vietnam and the fact that multiple administrations had actively sought to hide that fact from the American people. The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a U.S. military analyst, witnessing the Vietnam war firsthand, which led to his decision to begin photocopying the Pentagon Papers and then leak them to The New York Times, which printed excerpts from them in a series of critical articles starting on June 13, 1971. After three articles were published, the Nixon Administration sought and won a federal court injunction to force the Times to cease publication.
And that is where the Post stepped in. Risking severe legal consequences, Graham and Bradlee continued to publish articles about and excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, which led to them being co-defendants in a crucial Supreme Court case at the end of that month. As it so happened, this drama unfolded during the same period when the Post was going public as a means of maintaining solvency, a conflicted gambit given that it had been a “family paper” for decades. Graham, who inherited ownership of the paper from her deceased husband, was a controversial figure primarily because she was a woman, which the bankers and investors saw as an inherent sign of weakness, a crucial misjudgment that Graham belied with her ultimate decision to continue printing stories even as the federal government was threatening them with charges of espionage.
Spielberg has (erroneously) been accused over the years of not making films with strong female protagonists, most recently by actress Elizabeth Banks, who quickly recanted her misguided jab at Spielberg while accepting an award at the Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards after being reminded that The Sugarland Express (1974), The Color Purple (1985), and The BFG (2014) all feature interesting, complicated female leads. Kay Graham will most certainly be added to that list, as Streep plays her a woman who takes her power with earnest and studied seriousness; she is all too aware of how she is perceived because of her sex, and Spielberg doesn’t do us the disservice of creating a fake Teflon heroine, but rather a complicated woman who worries and frets and feels constantly conflict, but at the end of the day stands up for what is right despite the potential of losing everything (a significant plot point involves the boiler plate language in the deal to go public that the bank can pull out if something disastrous were to happen, a category that would certainly include being prosecuted by the federal government).
Graham is not perfect by any means, as we see her early in the film attempting to pressure Bradlee into pulling his journalistic punches to win some favor with the Nixon Administration, to which he promptly and sternly tells her to “get your finger out of my eye.” It’s a telling moment between the two characters, and they will have many more interactions as the film progresses, as each step in the process in marked by Bradlee’s arrival at Graham’s house or office to inform her of the newest development, which become increasingly dangerous at every turn. Hanks is playing the less complicated character here, as Bradlee never waivers in his conviction about the paper’s right and responsibility to publish, which makes him a strong moral voice, albeit not a terribly interesting one (a little more conflict and doubt might have worked here, although he has a very good scene with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, in which he is reminded of how his position is not nearly as precarious as Graham’s due to his privilege of being a man). “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee says early in the film in relation to the Post’s coverage of Nixon’s daughter’s wedding, words that at the time seem trivial enough given their connection to a gala social event, but will later take on significantly more weight.
Spielberg’s fascination with American history has long informed his work as a filmmaker, and almost as soon as he had “made it” in the industry and become a genuine economic force, he turned his attention to fractious historical subjects, including institutionalized racism and the legacy of slavery in The Color Purple, Amistad, and Lincoln; the ravages of war in Empire of the Sun (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and War Horse (2011); the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993); and terrorism in Munich (2007), the film that The Post most closely resembles stylistically. Just as Spielberg channeled the look and feel of early ’70s political thrillers like Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), he and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again draw visual inspiration from that era of Hollywood cinema, incorporating wide-angle lenses, zooms, and a restless, roving camera that embodies the film’s sense of tortured urgency. Spielberg owes a great debt, of course, to Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), for which the The Post plays as a kind of unofficial prequel. The ending of Spielberg’s film depicting the discovery of the Watergate break-in echoes the opening credits sequence of Pakula’s, which reflects Spielberg’s tendency to end his films on ambivalent, rather than simplistically reassuring notes. Even though The Post trades heavily on the elation of the Supreme Court victory that further empowered the press against attempts at prior restraint, it also reminds us that it was only one victory in a much larger battle that has been escalated beyond imagination over the past few years.
In this regard, The Post is an essential work, crying out via history against the “fake news” machine and reminding us of why the free press is not just a constituent part of the grand American project, but an absolute necessity in checking the powers of those who are elected to govern us. Spielberg, recognizing how essential the film is to our times, rushed to get it produced and released in less than a year, and while he is too decent to call out Trump directly, he did say in one interview, “I just felt that there was an urgency to reflect 1971 and 2017 because they were very terrifyingly similar.” At numerous points, the screenplay by Liz Hannah (a producer making her writing debut) and Josh Singer (The West Wing, Spotlight) slams the nail squarely (perhaps too squarely) on the head, giving their characters monologues that play more like direct addresses to Trump and his supporters. Of course, the sheer audacity and success with which Trumpism has managed to undercut what should be a basic faith in the institution of journalism almost demands such a response, as if rational appeals to reason are now somehow radical. Healthy skepticism is one thing; calling any story that conflicts with your worldview “fake news” is one of the foundational blocks of despotism, and what The Post demonstrates in no uncertain terms is that, in the words of Judge Murray Gurfein, who heard the government’s initial case to issue an injunction against the Post, “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.”
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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