Movie Review: The Post
March 8, 2018
Steven Spielberg gets an idea for a story and makes visual drama out of it: The great swirl of violence on D-Day, the brave moment when Celie stands up to abusive Albert, the tenuous finger of a lonely child reaching out to the lonely extra-terrestrial. Spielberg is the master of emotional impact.
Three-fourths of the way through his most recent "The Post," though, I was still wondering why Spielberg made this film. The dramatization of grunt life for our foot soldiers in Nam, the horrors of being a villager there or even the "coming home" kinds of drama for those at home on U.S. soil was non-existent in this film. The brief scenes with stateside war protesters look like comic-book cutouts. Spielberg typically loves the creamy, dreamy depth that comes from shooting on celluloid, but the shots of protesters in this film look like the worst kind of digital video — two-dimensional cut-outs of caricatures wearing too bright colors, all in sharp edges and a hard white.
The Post does have its roster of stellar actors. Tom Hanks does a serviceable job of playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. But in his role we don't have a character so much as a function. And the screenplay itself has some moments where a dogged adherence to exposition takes precedent over drama, human interest, curiosity, expectation or surprise. That is, one sometimes gets the feeling that this is a kind of paint-by-number screenplay more than a human drama come to life on the big screen.
Meryl Streep's Katharine Graham, though, is definitely worth the watch. Her character arc is subtle, but powerful. She mumbles through an investor meeting in the opening of the film, after over-preparing as any businesswoman had to have done to survive in business back then. And since all of her preparation and articulate cheer turns to mush in a boardroom full of dark-suited men, we know she has a mountain to climb before she can earn her place as the publishing head of the Washington Post.
I've never regretted a moment watching Meryl Streep —whether she's acting or simply being herself as she's nominated for yet another Academy Award. When, toward the climax of this film, she does stand up (literally) and walks into the light with her ropey gold necklace and glowing silky golden gown to say "run it" (as in, go ahead and print the front page that runs WAPO's installment of the Pentagon Papers), I realized one of the reasons the film was made: so a golden glow, come no doubt from the heavens, could shine upon the American Constitution and its freedom of the press. Did America have the right to know that the "conflict" in Vietnam had been in the works for years, in secret? Or that Rand Corp. experts had predicted its outcome (a loss) long before thousands of soldiers had lost their lives? Well, certainly in a democracy they did.
Spielberg and his screenwriters didn't belabor it too much, but they hit it pretty hard on the nose when they blurted out lines about the press keeping the government honest or letting us know when we're being lied to so we can do something about it. They couldn't have made a more timely film about the fact that truth and information is the cornerstone of freedom. And it's lovely and timely, too, when a now-empowered Katherine Graham glides down the steps from a Supreme Court victory against injunction while a crowd of young women parts like the Red Sea to let her through — hope, admiration and pride fill every young woman's face at the presence, the option, of a woman leader.
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But even these are not the moments where Spielberg gives us his juice. He waits. And it is finally the presses themselves that get the leading role in this film. We don't know it until the very end, and their screen time is limited. But the love and the light and the close-ups and the editing to John Williams music creates that well-known and best-beloved Spielbergian drama that springs tears from every watcher. How many lovely montages of newspapers running through their printers have we seen from Classical Hollywood history? They are all referred to and celebrated here: The working men of our democracy pull the papers into stacks and bind them up, more Americans load the stacks onto trucks and off of them, the early morning street vendors excitedly grab those newspapers, happy to have wares to hawk knowing they're holding something big that's "hot off the press."
Sigh. Satisfaction. You won't leave this film without it. And that reignited faith in democracy, if felt only for a moment, makes the big screen and the bag of popcorn (with real, analog butter), all the more worthwhile if you go see The Post at our beloved Crystal Theater this weekend. We may watch movies on cellphones and get our news from fake Russian-placed Facebook feeds these days, but we are still connected to our free press past, and, yes, we still do have a functioning Constitution. And, finally, yes, there are the likes of Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham everywhere still; but now our dedicated journalists are of all ages, genders and ethnicities, all Americans who know when to stand up (that's the good news).
Elizabeth Henry teaches film courses at CMC. She is a photographer and script consultant.