The Post

January 12, 2018
Who will win the staring contest.. Meryl Street and Tom Hanks face off in 'The Post'
Who will win the staring contest.. Meryl Street and Tom Hanks face off in 'The Post'

Steven Spielberg is to the cinema as Volvo is to the world of automobiles. Everyone recognises that a Volvo is an excellent, well-made car. It’s safe, reliable, high quality… but it will never get your pulse racing.

With Spielberg we can be confident that each new feature will be a quality product. He’s too experienced, his techniques too steamlined, to allow for an obvious failure. Yet I find myself going along to his movies feeling dutiful, not excited. One can be confident it’ll be good, but there are no surprises on offer.

Spielberg deviated ever so slightly from the square in Bridge of Spies (2015), thanks to a script worked over by the Coen brothers who instilled a touch of their own trademark weirdness. The Post, however, is classic Spielberg. There are heroic but flawed characters who negotiate crushing moral dilemmas; issues of national and universal importance; strong performances by recognised Hollywood stars, and a score by John Williams that never misses a cue when it comes to playing on viewers’ emotions.

Having observed the success of a newspaper drama such as Spotlight (2015) which dramatised the Boston Globe’s campaign to expose child abuse within the Catholic Church, Spielberg must have felt the time was right to make a movie about the Washington Post’s 1971 investigation into the Pentagon Papers. It can’t be coincidental that a film looking at Richard Nixon’s aggressive, obstructive approach to the press is being screened in the age of Donald Trump.

Spielberg was happy to send a message to America’s political leaders in Lincoln (2012), and The Post is another shot across the bows. At a time when newspapers everywhere are fighting for survival, Spielberg is reminding us that a free press is the safeguard of democracy. It takes courage to expose injustice and corruption in the highest echelons when the President himself denounces any unfavourable comment as “fake news”.

Indeed, it was one of the great utopian fantasies that the spread of social media would help create a more truly democratic society. In reality it has allowed millions of people to immerse themselves in their own fears and prejudices, preferring ‘alternative facts’ to the truth.

It wasn’t quite the same in 1971 when newspapers were being put together by compositors working with letterpress printing techniques. The United States was still mired in the Vietnam War, a conflict that grew progressively more brutal as America’s chances of winning diminished. The Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, were top secret documents prepared by the Department of Defense, looking at United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967.

The shocking revelation was that American politicians had systematically lied to the public. Operations had been expanded in secret, and negative assessments kept under wraps. Even though experts had argued the war could not be won the government kept throwing away money and lives in a futile effort to save face.

The Pentagon Papers were first written up by Neil Sheehan in the New York Times, but when the Nixon adminstration slapped an injunction on the paper it fell to the Washington Post to take up the challenge.

For the Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (played with her customary aplomb by Meryl Streep), the opportunity came at a particularly sensitive moment. The Post had just been floated on the stock exchange, and a massive legal scandal threatened to derail the process, bringing ruin in its wake.

Editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), never hesitated for a second. Despite the risks, despite the warnings and urgings of the lawyers, Bradlee could not allow this story to slip away. It’s the moment all (Hollywood) newspaper editors live for, and Spielberg plays it to the hilt. It’s left to us to decide how much of Bradlee’s motivations might be assigned to personal ambition, how much to professional instinct, idealism and integrity.

We are swept up in the excitement of the moment as the journalists rummage through the documents looking for the most crucial passages, while the lawyers grow more alarmed and the deadline clock keeps ticking. It’s Graham though, who has to make the final call and show bravery not expected of a woman known as a Washington socialite, and a close friend of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). As we now know from Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War, McNamara had huge reservations about the escalation in Vietnam, but remained a loyal servant of the administration. He is treated softly here.

It’s Streep’s portrayal of Graham that most viewers will remember as the core of this film. It’s that feel-good role of a capable woman in an utterly chauvinistic environment. As for the publication of the Pentagon Papers, it was the beginning of the end for Nixon, who would soon be caught up in the Watergate scandal. Spielberg may be hoping that many will walk away from this film feeling reassured that with courage and perseverance another would-be tyrant might soon be toppled.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvvLNv_iAww

The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Liz Hannah & Josh Singer
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Bruce Greenwood
USA, rated M, 115 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 January, 2018