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In 1993 Spielberg managed the feat of dominating the box office and the awards season with a double whammy of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Since then it seems he’s attempting the same trick once a decade. In the 2005 he paired Munich with War of the Worlds. It didn’t quite manage to have the same impact but was a valiant attempt and one no other filmmaker would even dream of making. Now, just before the close of the 2010’s he’s at it again. 2018 will see the release of a CGI spectacle in Ready Player One (a movie that has already had to weather a pre-emptive backlash) and a quieter, high minded piece, called The Post.
In The Post, Spielberg is telling the true story of how, in 1971, the Washington Post defied pressure from the Nixon White House to join the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers – a leaked study detailing America’s crimes, lies and blunders during the US’s involvement in Vietnam. All this is against the backdrop of the war still, pointlessly, raging and the newspaper’s own future looking precarious.
Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, a woman who has become the first female publisher in the country after inheriting it due to a tragedy. She’s constantly ignored and second guessed by the boys club that she has found herself an accidental member of. Needling her constantly is the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, (Tom Hanks). Hanks’ portrayal of Bradlee is that of a forceful but charming old school newspaper man, dammit. He’s equal parts mercenary and crusading. His twin motives of fighting for freedom of speech and scooping a rival paper work in tandem.
As fun as Hanks is to watch, this is Streep’s movie. Kay is portrayed as someone who is deeply unsure of herself and her own competence. It is the story of a grown woman learning to stop doubting herself and assert her authority. Streep harnesses the weird warble that American old money people have. Early on, in particular, she sounds like her voice is always on the edge of breaking. Everything hinges on her resisting government pressure and a lifetime of social conditioning. The fact that she is so rich and well connected (she is personal friends with Robert McNamara) is also presented as a real dilemma but that’s probably one conflict that won’t resonate with many people. Only someone of Streep’s calibre could make this work as well as she does and it would be very surprising if she does not get the expected accolades from the Academy.
While this isn’t Indiana Jones, Spielberg also, naturally, applies the full force of his skill to the material. This is a talky movie but one where the director makes every scene engaging. The initial smuggling of documents happens in long shots in dark rooms to John William’s score. Panicked meetings are covered by a roaming steadicam allowing us to be bamboozled by each new remark and, in one scene, a printing press starting up causes a building to rumble with all the menace and import of an approaching T-Rex. The man’s good at his job.
For all that, though, there’s the niggling feeling that the whole thing, well intentioned as it is, is simply wrongheaded. There’s clearly a reason this is being made now but rather than feeling useful in 2018 The Post feels like liberal nostalgia for an era where things like facts, norms, institutions and decorum mattered. It’s an appeal to a type of middle class professional mindset. It’s a world where someone telling a former Defence Secretary that their thinking was ‘flawed’ is portrayed as devastating. At a time when the current resident of the Oval Office got there by calling Marco Rubio a little bitch and threatening to jail his opponent, it feels like the discourse has moved on, somewhat.
The Post’s idea problem doesn’t end there. Towards the film’s third act a young, dark skinned woman takes the time to tell Kay, an old, white, rich lady, how great she is. Kay later emerges to a throng of young, female admirers. Yes, she was the first woman to publish a paper stateside, but having her become some sort of Khaleesi feels like the most White Feminist thing ever. I expect that there’ll be more than a few think pieces criticising the film along these lines.
Finally, in lionising a still existing paper, it’s worth mentioning that while the Washington Post may have helped end the Vietnam war they then helped start the Iraq war and currently seem to be angling to start a new cold war. Obviously journalism, facts and freedom of speech matter but this is still a deeply flawed institution. The Post is a period piece but if it is saying anything about current affairs it seems to be saying that once in a while a wealthy dowager in control of a large business will work up the courage to alienate her country club friends by doing the right thing. As a movie this works wonderfully but as a rallying cry to the #resistance it fails to inspire much hope.