A sentimental historical drama retelling the story of the US press in 1971 risking everything to release the top secret ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the public, and showing the battle to tell the truth publicly under a controlling US government (somewhat mirroring today’s), under President Nixon.
The Spielberg / Hanks duo are back at it again (other films directed by Spielberg and lead by Hanks include; Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, Bridge of Spies, Catch Me If You Can), and with Meryl Streep leading the billing this time we’ve got very strong poster potential:
Quite a few rave reviews are quoted on that poster, including the Washington Post’s own review which was, unsurprisingly, glowing too.
So we know what the studios and mainstream press want us to think about the film, but what about your average everyday human being? As the film’s slogan goes…
TRUTH BE TOLD
We live in a time where history is perhaps repeating itself in America, as the free press are being bashed by the great-orange-toupée’d-leader-of-the-free-world, and this film is maybe the left-leaning movie industry’s attempt to raise awareness of the issue. In order to capitalise on the timing of public awareness of the topic being at its highest, the film was rushed through in less than a year (which I believe is pretty astounding for a feature length movie).
There are a number of key stories or sub-plots throughout the film, which do help keep the viewer interested, but the two main plots feel a little too calculated to tick the boxes of Things The Public Should Care About for my liking (not to say these aren’t important issues to raise):
- The evil US government trying to control the American free press. (Trump, anyone?)
- Following Kay Graham’s journey from meek, accidentally inherited business owner to confident, powerful businesswoman, fighting against an all male board – and a largely male cast for that matter. (Gender and leadership)
The Post opens with scenes of Vietnam (Spielberg always does war well), and we’re introduced to Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who secretly makes copies of the Pentagon Papers – a top secret document 4000 pages long that completely discredits the futile American war on Vietnam, and four governments along with it – and sends it to the New York Times for them to release to the public.
Daniel’s role in the film, to my disappointment, was relatively short (none of the story would have happened without him). We move quickly on to the two main characters that The Post follows: Kay Graham (Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Hanks). Kay owns the Washington Post, a struggling regional newspaper which is about to go public to raise the funds it needs to survive. Bradlee (described in the film as a ‘pirate’) runs the paper on the ground. His interests are purely commercial, finding stories interesting enough to keep people reading, whilst Kay is fighting her board who distrust her as she has inherited the company after her husband’s death (and to be fair, she later admits that she hadn’t worked a day in her life up to that point, so her credentials weren’t exactly glowing).
We are introduced to the two characters as she bumbles her way awkwardly to brunch with Bradlee, and we see much of the dynamic between them: she seems meek but has a feisty edge, he is calm but arrogant towards her, but they clearly get along despite it all. This scene is presented as a wonderful single cut that lasts several minutes, and really demonstrates the world-class quality of the two actors.
The story itself is well told and unfolds at a steady pace, but resolves a little too cleanly and abruptly. The ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are just that bit too obvious for my liking. Whilst we are presented with Ben Bradlee as a ‘pirate’, he is clearly more of a loveable rogue, and though occasionally unscrupulous, he is really just a grumpy, chain-smoking version of the trustworthy Tom Hanks we all know and love.
Spielberg is on form as always, and especially considering the rapid pace of production – the cinematography is impeccable, scenes beautifully and realistically set, conversations well captured, expressive but not to the point of being overly arty – it’s a smartly shot drama.
I mentioned earlier that the film was produced in less than a year, and you can tell in a few places where they opted for green screen sets rather than constructed ones (it is particularly noticeable in the scenes where they get off the plane, and as they walk into the Supreme Court – the backgrounds are just that bit shallow compared to most of the film). We’re spoilt by the quality of TV / streamed productions these days (most of which use a huge amount of green screen), so any hint of it in a feature film jumps out now as the production value has to be that bit higher to justify the individual expenditure.
The script (written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) felt well crafted, with most of the dialogue running very naturally. I’m usually a big fan of David Cross, who plays a relatively small supporting role as one of the journalists at the post (you might recognise him in Arrested Development) but I sensed that he was perhaps reined in to reading strict lines when he’s probably more used to improvising, which is where he shines – the dialogue just felt a little bit too careful.
There were several nicely placed moments of comedy that helped break the tension a little throughout, such as Bradlee’s daughter making hundreds of dollars selling home-made lemonade to the journalists as they write the story up in his home.
The soundtrack was by another classic Spielberg collaborator, John Williams, which helped to give the film some of its trademark Spielberg vibe. However, it was a bit, overbearing at times. Not necessarily too loud or dramatic, but just there when it didn’t need to be; for example during some conversations, it seemed as though the producers were nervous that the acting wouldn’t carry the emotions well enough to manage in silence or even with just a subtle track – instead opting for intense heart string pulling music which I felt was unnecessary.
Pace and tension
Although the build-up of threat feels authentic enough, there are actually no real enemies seen (Nixon, whilst alluded to, is never fully shown) and the threat dissipates in a fairly unsatisfactory manner towards the end (hooray, happy ending) with a secretary relaying the verdict over the phone to a room full of people and then reciting some moving poetry back to a room full of (jaded, world-weary) journalists, who remarkably listen to it all, a full crescendo of John William’s strings building in the background, eyes moistening – on screen at least.
Questions left unanswered
I was somewhat disappointed to not learn more about Daniel Ellsberg, the man who seems remarkably unflappable in ‘Nam, steals all the documentation and risks being executed for treason. However his story seems secondary to that of the paper in this film, as though the Washington Post – and Kay Graham in particular- were risking more than he was. Other thoughts I had about the film include:
- how did everything not set on fire with that much paper and so many cigarettes?
- aren’t the printing presses actually amazing? We should mourn the loss of that industry and the people who produced the papers with such skill to tight deadlines day after day.
- did Kay Graham really walk out of the Supreme Court through a crowd of admiring women? (I felt this was one of the hammiest moments in the film).
- what happened to Daniel Ellsberg? (I later learnt for myself that all charges against him were dropped in 1973)
Daniel is shown at one point in the film speaking on television about how Nixon was pushing the charge of treason against him, and as a consequence Nixon is dangerously close to considering himself as the state (I’ll need to watch the film again before I can get the full quote down). I originally felt this was put into the film as a jibe towards Trump, however Daniel is also quoted (in real life) as saying;
“…actually, sorry to say, [The Post] would have been just as timely under Obama.”
Interestingly Daniel Ellsberg actually had his 10 year old daughter cutting ‘top secret’ off the stolen papers, but Spielberg felt viewers would find this unrealistic (truth sometimes is stranger than fiction!)
I’ve repeatedly seen film critics use the words, ‘stirring’, ‘powerful’, and even ‘thrilling’ for this film. I feel that there’s a problem here, and the irony of it is not lost on me: the same press that is vaunted in this film as seeking single minded pursuit of The Truth At All Costs (even to the point where their own lives and wellbeing are in danger) is the same press that today write their articles in sound-bites in the hope that they will be quoted on the front of a movie poster. It’s not that I disagree with the quotes necessarily, but they seem sensationalist when my experience of the film was nothing like as absolute. “The undisputed film of the year”; I suppose it did come out in January so that may be true…
Rather than use the word ‘stirring’, as the film is commonly slated by the newspapers, I might instead say ‘hammy’, at times. I’m sure it stirs the film critics who write for newspapers: they are essentially the heroes of the story. There was just a touch too much nostalgic American sentimentality for a cynical Brit like myself.
The press is of necessity a vehicle that requires new stories to keep an interested audience, so the question is, does the press really serve the interests of the public, or rather feed the public a version of the truth that suits them (and attracts readers) to further benefit their own interests? I suppose the answer is: it depends. But as the the Supreme Court ruling on this case stated, the ideal is that:
“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Let’s hope that remains true.
My rating: 7/10
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Leading actors: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks
Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
The Post has been nominated for two Oscars.