Editor Chloe Woods reviews Spielberg’s latest, star-studded film.
Usually, the actors are the ones we accuse of phoning it in. After an impressive thirty-nine features, among them lauded some of the greatest films in history, it’s a disappointment to see from Steven Spielberg something so – dare I say it – boring. It’s not that The Post is bad in any objective sense, only that it gets so caught up in its own high-mindedness it forgets to notice whether the audience has fallen asleep.
The first hour in particular drags through the slow details of inter-paper politics and occasional hints of the turmoil to come. The Post picks up a little once the Pentagon Papers enter the picture: but even then it’s a drawn-out and anticlimactic sequence of events. There’s also no great need to pay attention – the film will hammer in both plot points and thematic ones to exhaustion. You won’t leave totally enlightened about the Vietnam War or the impact of the study’s release on the Nixon administration, but you will absolutely be prepared to give an off-the-cuff presentation on the responsibilities of the free press. As long as you don’t mind being without sources, that is: because while The Post does pay lip service to the public consequences of releasing the papers (which reveal that, by 1971, successive administrations had known the Vietnam war was a lost cause for six years), it does a damn poor job of showing any actual concern. The main issue is the fate of the paper, as a financial concern and a personal one. That could have made a perfectly compelling film in its own right; but the import of this local, family-run paper’s destiny for the free press and the democratic process – which, again, we are told about, rather than shown – is less than obvious. Yes, the Washington Post published: but it could have been any now-forgotten rag.
This is the problem. My mother was born in 1971; a straw poll of millennial friends about the Pentagon Papers brings unanimous references to “that film I saw a trailer for recently” and nothing else. The Post, as a film, is missing half its pieces because it presumes understanding of why the Washington Post was later considered a critical bastion in the tradition of muck-raking journalism and a ballsy free press. There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn – this is not the first time the Washington Post has been fictionalised for the big screen – but All the President’s Men, though released (in 1976) only four years after the events of Watergate, does a much better job of sketching out the implications for the uninitiated. Maybe that’s because back then, when events were still fresh in everyone’s mind, it was clear which parts of the message needed to be stated simply. The Post by contrast comes across as an adult talking to a small child – and skipping over the bits required to actually convince. Which would explain the six Golden Globe nominations, I suppose. It will no doubt have very different connotations for an audience which recalls the events in question, and they’ll probably be the main ones watching it. But the people with most to learn from a film like this, which – however crudely – waxes lyrical on the importance of a free press to hold the government accountable, are the people with little interest in a staid Oscar-bait feature starring Tom Hanks as Tom Hanks (I mean, Ben Bradley) and Meryl Streep as Meryl Streep (whoops – Katharine “Kay” Graham).
Timely – it’s timely, after a fashion. The script was purchased in 2016; Spielberg opted to direct the film last February, a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration. I’m going to assume you’ve heard the words “fake news” before: if at any point in the last year you’ve blissfully tuned out the details of the current American administration, all you need to know is it involves a constant assault on the free press, the denial of press passes and other access, and a daily stream of nonsense. Do the newspapers speak truth to power now? When they try, it rarely seems anyone is listening. The Post yearns for the days of the Nixon administration, when revelations of shadiness and lies in the White House could provoke a sea-change in attitudes rather than an exhausted shrug, and journalists cared first and foremost about informing the public. The old-fashioned technologies of typewriters and dial-phones are lovingly caressed by the camera: the point here is not to learn from the past, but simply to romanticise it. Let us go back – to what? To Nixon? To the successive governments who lied about Vietnam? To the courses set in motion that brought us to where we are now? It was not a simpler time of more straightforward questions; that’s only how it seems in hindsight. Ben Bradley and Katharine Graham themselves had dubious links to the heart of government, were pressured not to publish, and battled to find resources for serious journalism. There have always been buffoons and charlatans. People were not nobler then – or they are not less so now – the news is only the first draft of history, and that’s the most telling line in the film: because it doesn’t only mean history still full of notes and clutter. History is penned by the victors, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers marked an important date in the temporary victory by a certain conception of journalism for cultural territory. Newspapers and television anchors, unlike politicians, became people we could place faith in. That was part of the problem. Do the events of The Post have relevance to our present situation? Yes, indeed. Is the solution an attempt to recapitulate the past? No – only in the most basic impulse – that you must tell the truth.
Does the film? I’ve no idea, honestly. Part of its dullness may stem from a loyalty to historic fact, which is rarely cinematic, but if so that would be wasted effort: historic films tend to be swallowed wholesale or disbelieved regardless of their individual merits. Among the current crop, the best to be said for The Post is that at least it’s not another World War II biopsy: but it was supposed to be a film, not a repetitive two-hour lecture on how awesome the free press used to be. We’ve all seen Trump’s tweets. We know.
The Post is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer: