The Post (2017)

Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk

The camera moves a whole lot. It’s Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski; one expects that it’s going to move elegantly. For the most part that’s even the case in this movie, I would say, typically able to move us around a newsroom or the offices therein, the house party, the house work session, without tripping us up or getting in the way of the action. (Arguably the worst shot in the movie is one where the camera holds still, looking with enormous awe at…a Xerox machine.) And then there are these moments in the movie where the camera will be on the move and then suddenly…it’s not anymore. It had happened already by the time we got to this particular annoying moment, but how annoying it is stands out. Bradlee (Hanks) has come to Graham’s (Streep), and she has to shoo out a grandchild to the back. The camera pulls away from them, towards the front door, goes around a wall, and we see from a distance that Graham is letting the kid out and Bradlee has followed. And then: cut, medium shot, Hanks and Streep are chatting about the end of the journalistic world or something. If all that mattered was this transition, then what on earth was the Steadicam runaround for? Surely titans like Spielberg and Kaminski don’t have to prove they know how the toys work after all this time, but here they are, presenting us with the toys like people one-tenth of their age do when adults come to visit the house. It’s not all downhill from here or anything—the scene where Graham gets the phone call about the possible consequences of running the Pentagon Papers report is preceded by shots from a party which effectively show just how crowded she is at all times, just mobbed by people—but it’s hard to forget how awkward this showoff moment, and the others like it, are.

The Post is a movie of flourishes above all else, of curlicues and calligraphy, of moments which are that rare combination of joyless and crowdpleasing. They get Bob McNamara’s (Bruce Greenwood) hair just terrifyingly right, and there’s a crowd of angry hippies protesting, and we go to Vietnam with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and everyone has goofy clothes. These are the things that count as signifiers of historical accuracy, even though “stinkin’ war” is definitely a “Gosh, let’s make sure this thing stays PG-13” choice, and from fifty years out what people wore in the ’70s are basically just Halloween costumes anymore, especially if you’re Carrie Coon or Sarah Paulson in it. On the whole, those visual tchotchkes are basically harmless. I found myself a little more bothered by the weird voices that the movie stars are doing in this picture. (If you were on a prestige TV drama within five years of The Post, there’s a very good chance that you’re in this movie; seeing the flood of FX, HBO, and AMC vets in The Post reminded me of a very good basketball team playing through its two stars and surrounded by an army of role players.) Tom Hanks is doing an impression of Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, I think, and all it did was remind me of how incredible Robards was in a part that I’m now quite positive only he could do justice to. Streep, no foolin’, does another voice. There is an eensy bit of Julia Child in the vowels, or maybe it’s just that Meryl Streep accents have caught up to the rest of the world and are beyond parody. I’m sure this is a more accurate portrayal of Katherine Graham, but what of it? Shouldn’t I have gotten the personal turmoil this woman feels without the voice? Hanks and Streep are doing rubric acting in this movie, which is the way to get awards season buzz if you’re playing a real person (see: awards shows), even though it’s not a particularly good way to make us believe the character. Surrounded by the TV actors, who at least feel a little more natural, they seem gaudy and out of place. “Natural” is not strictly a replacement for “good,” which is a problem that Bradley Whitford in particular seems to be having a problem with here, but it’s definitely an improvement over hammy.

What’s worse than bothersome, bordering on obnoxious, is when the flourishes are all the movie can offer when there ought to be something really solid (“ideas”) underpinning the text. Graham walks away from the Supreme Court ignored as other newspaper owners (men) get the interviews and press coverage that she of course deserves; she walks down a Red Sea where many twenty- and thirty-something women have parted for her. Visual storytelling and feminism(!), I guess, although I was curious as to how all these women on these crowded steps knew exactly where Katherine Graham was going to walk. (Watching Spielberg movies inevitably makes me think about the difference between being a scold who’s not in the spirit of the thing and being irked by artists who think symbolism should be so weighty that it could only be lifted with an intricate pulley system.) The movie has given us a couple scenes where Streep explains to Alison Brie and Paulson explains to Hanks what it was like to be a woman, what it’s like not to be taken seriously by men, what it means to have something of her own where she has this kind of authority. They’re stapled on, and crookedly, but at least I didn’t get the sense that the movie was waiting for me to tear up with pride during those scenes. That explaining is, incidentally, more and more what the movie leans on as the stakes get higher. Speech after speech, monologue after monologue, the future of the country, the free press, democracy. The comparisons to Capra are clear enough, but the reason that even Capra’s hokiest stuff still affects people is because it was of its time. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are at times unbearably sanctimonious about the promise of America, but at least they’re sanctimonious about America as it appeared to be then.

I am, as they say on the Internet, old enough to remember when people wanted Oprah to run for president against Donald Trump on the basis of a speech she made at the Golden Globes. That we’ve had something like twenty-five mainstream Democratic candidates since, a group that still contains two sympathetic and enormously misguided billionaires, makes this desperate thirst among center-left types for their own ludicrously wealthy savior especially silly; these are the same people who look at their peers a little further left on the spectrum and say that their “movements” or “revolutions” are more like “pipe dreams.” The idea of being able to save oneself, of having the wherewithal or even the will to do so, is laughable to this type of person. Perhaps they saw The Avengers, or one of its many, many, many siblings, and they know there’s nothing we can do but wait for the people in rubber to show up; perhaps they saw The Post, and believe that our fate lies in the hands of the American nobility, the type of people who have always been godawfully rich and who can have conversations with each other like, “Why didn’t you push your friend, the president of the United States, further on that issue?” There are two crises in this movie. The first, obviously, is whether or not the courts will agree that the executive branch can decide what a newspaper can or cannot publish. The other crisis is whether or not an IPO will crumble under the weight of the legal scrutiny against Katherine Graham and the Washington Post. No, these people are not like us. These saviors we have appointed for ourselves are fickle indeed. If the owner of the Washington Post really is someone we ought to rely on for the security and health of the republic, then the game’s already up.

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