The Post (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Jan/180

The Post (2018)

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The United States government has kept its people in the dark about the long-term disaster of the Vietnam War.  Because of one conscientious citizen, The Washington Post is in a unique position to expose the years of deception if the paper's leaders can work through the road blocks of government officials and financiers alike.  Steven Spielberg directs The Post, with the screenplay written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and stars Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Bob Odenkirk.

One peril of historical dramas is how the storytellers choose to ignore, or incorporate, perspective on the events portrayed.  Our relationship with media - newspapers in particular - has shifted dramatically since the events of The Post took place.  The power of one story no longer (if it ever did) has the effect of making or breaking someone's career.  We need only go back to the 2016 election to see our confirmation bias in action, or look at the current "Me Too" wave of women bringing down men who were able to keep their victims silent for too long.

I am suspicious bordering on hostile toward the rosy, arguably old-fashioned, approach to media Steven Spielberg takes with The Post.  His direction is completely sincere, which is part of the problem.  There's no winking at or hinting toward how the moneyed interests that prove to be stumbling blocks in The Washington Post's plan to publish the Pentagon Papers are the same forces that helped Donald Trump limp over the electoral finish line.  Instead, Spielberg presents the power behind the money as an annoyance, with the true enemy the boorish man in the White House who will go on to win a second term in a historic landslide.

Longtime readers will know I'm not a fan of Meryl Streep and The Post did little to sway my position.

It would be an act of critical cowardice to consider The Post solely on craft.  Spielberg rushed it to production to highlight the "scary parallels" between Nixon's abuse of power in the '70s and the ongoing travesty against human rights Trump wages today.  By forcing this comparison, I'm wondering if Spielberg realizes the press meant diddly to squat in the long run.  The successes dramatized in The Post set up a hilariously over-the-top sequence that functions as a sequel hook for Watergate, and that same press was set up perfectly for the media savvy Ronald Reagan to charmingly lie his way to the White House in the '80s.

Even if I wanted to ignore The Post's failure to address the blind spots of the press, it leaves the issue of who the heroes are.  The heroes, as presented in the press, are people clothed in sub-aristocracy who know what's best for the country.  Not that many will confuse Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as a prince, but he sure is comfortable keeping their company so long as they're useful leads.  Bradlee's one quiet moment of pessimism, flicking a lighter in the dark while looking pensively at a photo of John F. Kennedy, highlights not the privilege that kept his own blinders up but the indignity of being lied to by his powerful pals.

It's in that indignity that The Post exposes its weakest points.  There is no real issue of justice at play, and - as presented by Spielberg - the Pentagon Papers wouldn't exist as a subject without Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnessing Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) lie to the press about how well the Vietnam War is going.  Even at their most ethically murky, many films that touch on the Vietnam War take a moment to consider the American military's desecration of the Vietnamese.  Not here, as it's all about the indignity of being lied to and concern about "our boys" who died for those lies.  Spielberg can be brave, as the "tell me I'm a good man" and Twin Towers rendezvous at the end of Saving Private Ryan and Munich show, but its a cowardly dodge of the highest order when the indignity of lies comes first, the loss of American life second, and the barest whiff of Vietnamese tragedy a distant third.

On the issue of craft, The Post is a chore to sit through.  There's a lot of historical backing that needs to be addressed, and Spielberg goes for a semi-conspiratorial blue lit overview as Ellsberg reads excerpts directly from the papers.  I'm not thrilled by cinematic technique that could have been lifted from a below-average episode of The X-Files.  The multiple circling camera shots as people stand or sit reciting numbers and urgent commands add to the feeling of The Post being a rushed production with these shots adding no energy in their repetition.  Janusz Kamiński is an often excellent cinematographer, but I'm struggling to think of one interesting composition in The Post that doesn't employ some kind of spin to keep up the failed illusion of narrative progression.

Bob Odenkirk has honed his performance chops into some great dramatic work and is the best part of the otherwise monotonous The Post.

The only time The Post gains some energy is when Bob Odenkirk, as Ben Bagdikian, holds the screen.  Odenkirk adds a layer of uncertainty in a production otherwise propelled by indignity and self-righteousness.  His cracking voice as he jokes to a flight attendant about transporting government secrets, combined with some great low-key physical comedy when connecting with a source, breaks The Post out of its monotony.  Also, as someone exhausted with the endless cycle of Meryl Streep performance nominations earned by virtue of existing, she matches the tone of The Post by being inoffensive in-context and forgettable outside.

The only thing Spielberg accomplishes with The Post is laying groundwork for an inevitable return to the status quo.  It won't be long before a "respectable" politician back in the White House, one who is able to abuse their power and command respect by appearing dignified even if their policies destroy millions.  The Post is designed to keep that apparatus intact, to celebrate the power of the written word when financiers can be convinced of its importance, and reset the expectation of decorum.  The Post isn't Spielberg's worst film, but it's certainly the most unimaginative and dull he's been in over two decades.

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The Post (2017)

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.
Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Bob Odenkirk.

Posted by Andrew

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