The Post.

The Post is about Some Very Important Things, and the writers, Liz Hannah and John Singer, really want you to know that This is All Very Important, and they hope you leave the theater understanding the Importance of all of this Important Stuff. While it has its entertaining moments and two excellent performances, The Post hits you over the head with its heavyhanded delivery so often that I left my seat with a mild concussion.

This is the story of the Pentagon Papers, told from the perspective of Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and the reporters on the Washington Post who picked up the story after the New York Times was hit with a federal injunction. The Papers comprised 47 volumes and 7000 pages, the result of a lengthy study undertaken by a task force set up by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 to evaluate the state of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Among other notable findings, the task force concluded that the war was unwinnable, and that the continued effort in southeastern Asia was more about saving American face than fighting communism. One of the men who worked on the papers, Daniel Ellsburg, leaked them to the Times and later to the Post, because he believed the war was unjust and that multiple Administrations had lied to the American people.

This film starts in Vietnam, with a war scene and a scene on a plane where Ellsberg tells McNamara and President Johnson that the war isn’t progressing, after which we’re whisked into the world of the newspaper, where we learn that the Washington Post is about to sell shares to the public for the first time. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) owns the company in the wake of her husband’s suicide. (Philip Graham did kill himself, but it was in 1963; the film implies that his death was much more recent.) Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor in chief, is less interested in the business than in turning the paper into an important, national voice on the news. When the paper gets scooped by the Times with the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), an assistant editor, tracks down the Times‘ source, gets the Papers, and the film finally kicks into gear in a sequence that lands the group in court and leads to a lot of white men mansplaining to Graham why she shouldn’t do any of this.

Graham was a hero of her time for making a difficult decision that incurred substantial risk to her person, including the loss of her company and possibly her freedom. We tend to take Streep’s acting prowess – and the inevitability of her receiving a Best Actress nomination, which she did for The Post, her 21st Oscar nod – for granted, but she is superb as Graham, a woman who senses the need to be a strong leader, yet faces internal doubts about her ability and external pressure from the old white men who constitute her board and advisors, led by Bradley Whitford at his most annoying (by design). The story of how a woman altered the course of an industry and possibly a country is, by itself, sufficient fodder for an entire film, but The Post seems to downplay it in stages, only to have it surge back to the surface at the end, including in an artificial scene near the end where she exits the courthouse and walks through a gauntlet of admiring women.

Odenkirk is the real revelation in the film, giving Bagdikian the perfect blend of nervous energy and dogged seriousness required for the reporter who breaks the story and almost can’t believe his own good fortune. I’ve seen little of Odenkirk’s work before but primarily knew of him as a comedian; here he seems like a seasoned character actor, completely credible as the determined, world-weary reporter who gets the scoop on gut instinct and some very old-fashioned hard work. I would have given him a Best Supporting Actor nomination over Woody Harrelson, easily, because The Post doesn’t work unless the actor in this role does his job.

Hanks, on the other hand, feels too much like he’s giving us an impersonation of Bradlee than a performance. There’s a clenched-teeth affect to his speech, and the way he’s written, he’s the too-perfect boss for a reporter, valuing the story over all else, without even desultory regard for the legal and financial consequences of losing the lawsuit over publishing the Papers.

The Post entertains, and on some superficial level, it educates, but this was written as an Important film for the masses, one that lays on a thick layer of simple lessons rather than challenging the audience in any way. To compensate for what might seem like the slow pacing of reporting out a story, the film has numerous jarring edits that almost cut characters off mid-sentence, and some of the tonal shifts between the hunt for the Papers and Graham dealing with men who think she’s a silly little woman are just as incongruent. The movie wants you to feel something, and I did – if you want to be proud to be an American, the First Amendment is about as good a reason as you’ll find, and the publication of the Papers and court case that followed were very much about the role of a free press in enforcing accountability of the highest officials in the federal government. Everything is just a bit too pat, too tidy to do that subject or Katherine Graham sufficient justice.

I still have The Darkest Hour to review and then need to see The Phantom Thread, at which point I’ll have all 9 Best Picture nominees and can at least start a discussion of how to rank them.

Comments

  1. Using a CCR song for the Vietnam sequence was an original touch.

  2. Watch Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad for Odenkirk – late bloomer like JK Simmons

  3. I saw The Post in a packed theater in Indianapolis and there was a lot of applause at the end. My friend said, “they’re applauding the First Amendment”. I think that’s it.

  4. The film was well-made, as you’d expect from Spielberg; and well-acted, as you’d expect from Streep, Hanks and the rest of a pretty loaded supporting cast. But like you said, it was just so obvious. I obviously don’t mind a film making a point about contemporary times in a period piece, but you don’t have to hit me over the head with a sledgehammer to do it.

    I also wonder if it was so smart to end the film the way they did, which was almost a reminder to go watch “All the President’s Men” to see a superior newspaper film. Though I think they were also trying to make the point that there’s always a new story on the horizon.

  5. This is the problem with every Spielberg “art” film: He feels the need to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer. Slavery was wrong! (Amistad) The Holocaust was bad! (Schindler’s List) Racism is wrong! (The Color Purple)

    That is why, when I walked by the poster, my response was, “Meryl Streep–great! And Tom Hanks, too! And…oh, directed by Steven Spielberg. Pass.”

    • Yea, but Schindler’s List was never trying to be subtle, it was always meant to be visceral.

    • I do get the sense that Spielberg is straining to have the last word on any important topic upon which his gaze rests. He’s going to turn Ready Player One into a strings-scored elegy for a pre-technological age, mark my words.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful review, Keith. As someone who has spent his entire adult life in journalism (not in the rarefied air of major daily newspapers, but still a “legitimate” journalist), I agree that Spielberg delivered a heavy-handed message. And my reaction was and is “Thank God for that.” In this era of fake news, bot-manipulated media and outright lying by political hacks masquerading as journalists who tell you that all media outlets suck, I’ll take a dramatic lesson for the American public about the importance of the media any day. One thing I do agree with you is that the film underplayed the incredible tension Graham had to have felt when it was clear the Post’s desperately needed cash infusion in the form of the IPO was in real jeopardy. I wonder if other publishers would have had the courage to do the same today.

  7. This was very much A Steven Spielberg Movie, which means it was dully, obvious, and impeccably made. So many great movies this year, so it’s a little annoying to see this trifle get so much love at the expense of some great original stuff.

  8. You can actually watch and enjoy Better Call Saul without first watching Breaking Bad. And Odenkirk is really great in it. I liked that David Cross was in several scenes with him in this movie. If you’ve never seen his Mr Show sketch “Pre-taped Call-in Show,” It’s absolutely brilliant.

    One beef I had was that Tom Hanks isn’t gifted in accents. His came and went without warning in this movie. I found it profoundly distracting.

  9. In slight defense of the admittedly heavy-handedness of the film’s theme:
    Times like ours tend to submerge nuance, and some messages need amplification. As Keith and several commenters have noted, the 1st Amendment is as good a reason as any to appeal to the audience’s incipient patriotic identity. Any efforts to focus on our embattled freedom of the press will thankfully augment this embattled and threatened part of our essential heritage.

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