Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Post


Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks starring in a Steven Spielberg film about investigative journalism and the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the way American presidents and politicians had been lying about the Vietnam War for many years? Should have been an easy Wow! film, and yet …

The Post begins well, with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) coming back from his observations on the front lines of the war in 1971 to steal the papers from his offices at the Rand Corporation. But then we skip past the way Ellsberg released those papers to the New York Times, which then carried the great exposé on its front pages before being shut down by Nixon’s legal system. Instead, we jump to the Washington Post, where Katharine “Kay” Graham (Streep), the Post’s publisher, is trying to keep the newspaper alive by selling shares. Kay talks to her executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Hanks), and hears that there’s a story brewing at the New York Times and Bradlee is trying to find out what it is. 

Too late. The Times prints its story, though the government soon shuts it down. But Bradlee is not to be stopped. He knows there’s a lot more to the story and thinks The Post now has a shot at getting its own headlines. This is where Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) steps in: a writer at The Post, Bagdikian knows Ellsberg personally and suspects he is the source of the Papers. He wants a chance to find out. And so begins what will become a fight between the government and the newspapers and between those willing to risk all for the sake of a free press that holds governments accountable and those who are worried about keeping The Post financially viable. 

The Post is not only set in the early 70’s, it has a distinct 70’s feel, reminding me of the 70’s classics, Network and All the President’s Men. The cinematography, which favours a dark faded look, is key to that comparison, with John Williams’ score helping out. And The Post is clearly trying to be a political thriller, though the thriller content is minimal. But the tension is there, and The Post is always engaging, even when its predictability makes it less compelling. Indeed, I would argue that if The Post was primarily about what I have described thus far, it would fall well short of greatness, not even making it into my top fifteen films of 2017. 

Fortunately, The Post has another key theme, namely Kay Graham’s struggle as a woman in a man’s world. Graham was the first female publisher of a major newspaper, taking over after her husband’s suicide (her husband had been given the position from her father). It’s clear that the men don’t take her seriously, as depicted in one of my favourite scenes, where she is the lone woman at a Post board meeting and the men ignore her even when she knows more about what’s going on than any of them. It’s not just the men’s ignorance that makes the scene work - it’s the way Graham accepts her ‘innate inferiority’ as a woman. But this will change as the film goes on, and that change is, for me, the central theme of The Post and the theme that pushes the film into four-star territory. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Graham is played by one of the world’s all-time great actors. I wouldn’t say this is one of Streep’s best performances, but it’s worthy of some major nominations. I would actually say the same things about Hanks, who does a very convincing job as Bradlee. The rest of the acting was also excellent. Major roles not yet mentioned were played by Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson and Tracy Letts.

There have been articles comparing The Post’s depiction of the Nixon White House with the current administration, highlighting the need for today’s newspapers to keep Trump accountable. But the low-key way The Post handles the scandal of the Pentagon Papers makes me think this film could have done much more in talking about the role of the media in relation to government scandals (e.g. All the President’s Men). An interesting point to consider is how Bagdikian became one of the major critics of the media, one of the first to write about the way media ownership has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy men. 

As an advocate for the role of the media today, The Post needed to be much more hard-hitting, and much more aware of how the mass media continue to be restrained by wealth and power. But as a classic drama about the changing role of women in the workplace, and at home, the film works well. So I’m giving The Post **** and a place in my top fifteen films of the year, though not as high a place as I had hoped. My mug is up.

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