The Post: Made for You and Me, by David Bax
With The Post, Steven Spielberg may be openly inviting accusations of “liberal elitism.” The biggest name in American filmmaking is teaming with two of the biggest actors on the planet to make a film designed to send a message. And he’s releasing it at the height of Oscar season, when a cause célèbre can become a cause for celebs to campaign for awards on. And make no mistake. This is an anti-Donald Trump movie. Yet it would still be wrong to call Spielberg (or Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks) “liberal elites” for making it because the ideals of The Post aren’t liberal ones. They’re American.
The Post is the story of the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents proving that our government knew more than we were told about Vietnam and our dismal chances of victory there decades before the war even began. More specifically, The Post is about the Washington Post and its decision to publish these papers after the White House put an injunction on the New York Times for doing so first. To tell this story, Spielberg has in his arsenal a crackling screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer and a jaw-dropping cast with Streep and Hanks at the top, followed by Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, Deirdre Lovejoy, Michael Stuhlbarg, the comedy team of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross and, finally, Bruce Greenwood who, after playing John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days and Time reporter Sandy Smith in this year’s Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, apparently is a crucial ingredient to movies set in this time and place.
So, obviously, what we have here is a movie about freedom of the press, a subject crucial to our continued existence as a free and democratic nation, especially at a time when it is under constant attack from our self-serving, unpatriotic president. Spielberg even includes drooling, fetishistic montages of the actual presses printing out the daily paper. That’s not a complaint; these sections are awesome. But The Post has other things on its mind as well. It’s also the story of how Streep’s Katharine Graham took the reins of the Post after her husband’s death and bucked tradition to become a pioneering woman in the journalism industry (she would eventually go on to be the first ever female Fortune 500 CEO). Before she accomplishes that—even before she takes on Nixon—she first must battle a patriarchal workplace full of men who look down on her even though they work for her. An early board meeting, in which the men repeatedly ignore Graham only to listen to Whitford’s character say the same things, had me wondering, Nancy Pelosi style, “Does anybody listen to women when they speak around here?”
Pelosi’s lament is only three months old so, tempting as it may be to chalk up these indignities to the era, not much has improved in 46 years. Still, Spielberg and his team at least make a case that aesthetics have changed. The prevailing off-white palette feels very of the time. And, in Spielberg’s most committed thrust of authenticity, Nixon essentially plays himself. He is only glimpsed from behind and through an Oval Office window while an actor gestures along with those famed recordings.
In addition to those White House exterior shots, we get a period recreation of the façade of the New York Times building, as well as shots of the American Stock Exchange building (which hasn’t changed much in the interim). These strong, towering structures seem even older than they are, suggesting the resilience of the robust traditions and institutions they represent. The Post, however, argues that one of them doesn’t quite fit with the others. Journalism, enduring and venerable though it may be, is meant to be an outsider. Hannah’s screenplay is particularly interested in the too-familiar relationship between reporters and those they cover but more than willing to offer forgiveness to members of the press willing to see the error of their ways when the time comes.
Here, now, in 2017, the time has come. To paraphrase Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, if the president has a say in what a news organization can and can’t publish then journalism as we know it has ceased to exist. We haven’t quite gotten there with Trump yet but, in the movie, Rhys’s Daniel Ellsberg warns of presidents who seem to be declaring, “I am the state.” That’s Trump’s authoritarian attitude in a nutshell and Spielberg would like us to, at least, recognize how un-American that is and, hopefully, use the tools we have to speak out against it and effect change before it’s too late. If that makes The Post sound like a polemic, don’t worry. It’s a movie too, complete with dynamic characters, a propulsive plot and terrific performances. But a work of art can also be an unambiguous statement. Many of the great ones are just that. In the tradition of exceptional American artists like Woody Guthrie, Spielberg has made a feature length protest song. In Hollywood screening rooms, its declarations may sound like applause lines for the choir. Out there in the rest of America the beautiful, though, they’re calls to arms for the whole country.