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Burdened by purpose and slipping on its own partisanship, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is the perfect capper to this year in which every piece of pop art felt like it was about Donald Trump. The film, about The Washington Post’s risky decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, makes few explicit references to our current era, but it doesn’t need to. It’s about two political topics—women in the workplace and the corporatization of the news business—that are bound only by their relevance to contemporary politics. It’s not really a film. It’s the first and most expensive campaign ad for 2018.
Even the presence of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, whose consistently thoughtful work can bring the flimsiest of stories into three dimensions, begs a political subtext. Streep dipped into the culture wars with her anti-flyover state Golden Globes speech earlier this year and Hanks has often been mentioned as a potential Democratic nominee. Streep pushes through her politicization in a sharply observed portrayal of Katharine Graham who, when the film begins, has recently taken over ownership of the Post after the death of her husband. Set against a backdrop of white men in suits who want her removed, she evokes the caged nervousness of a woman beset on all sides by enemies—see the way she fumbles with her glasses when stressed—but eventually, when crisis arrives, the strength and decency of Wonder Woman.
Her moment of reckoning comes when editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) gets his hands on a study showing the government knows it is losing the Vietnam War and lying to the public about it. Gruff and avuncular, Hanks’s Bradlee is a caricature of journalistic integrity, so publishing the papers is a no-brainer to him, even after the White House calls to let him know they consider it treason. Complicating matters further is that this is the very week the Post has decided to go public, and investors may be scared off by the legal challenge, putting the paper’s very existence in jeopardy, and setting up Graham for a consequential decision. Does she publish the truth and suffer the financial consequences, or pull it back and become fake news?
The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer stages a meaningful debate between treating journalism as a business versus a public service, but it’s not a fair fight when the antagonist is a misogynistic board member played with top-notch sleaze by Bradley Whitford (evoking Billy Madison more than The West Wing) and when Spielberg’s depictions of the newsroom are dripping with reverence. He glorifies the newspaper lifer with bags under his eyes from sleeping in the newsroom, shooting him from a low angle to emphasize his heroism, and he fetishizes the printing press, which, once started, speeds through the frame like an unstoppable force for good.
There is nothing wrong with romanticizing the news business (says a guy writing in a newspaper to a person reading one), but reverence is less effective than examination. Look at its determined championing of gender equality, which Spielberg approaches not with nuance but simplistic feminist iconography. The moment when Graham, while walking down the steps of the Supreme Court, bifurcates a crowd of young female hippies gazing up at her with adoration (one even raises a small fist in solidarity) is fit for pop-up history books, not a feature film by one of cinema’s greatest masters.
Pop-up books are destined to be forgotten as the reader grows up, and that’s likely the same fate that will befall The Post. It’s the film of our moment, but moments are fleeting. A historical film can tell you more about the era it was created in than the one it depicts, but those parallels are supposed to sneak up on you, so that once you are engrossed in the story, you discover for yourself how little has changed and what we might do about it. As it stands, The Post is so aspirational that it left me disengaged, for if the battle they won was so decisive, why is it still so relevant?
The Post opens Friday at AMC Loews Georgetown, AMC Tysons Corner, and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.