Sit’em back young’in’s, while I roll some darn dom tobacci on my gums, and tell yam how dem pictures used to be! Back in the oledon days of the studio system, it twas neary common for your Clark Gables n your Vivien Leighs to be in films together, kissin’ and smoochin’ and the like. But dem pictures, dem gone! Now, we got dat LeBron.
Much of Steven Spielberg‘s The Post casts a wayward eye on how newspapers used to be (and still are). It romanticizes and shines that Spielberg filtered touch onto it. Meanwhile, it gives us something that’s become uncommon: star power. Now, before you harp about stuff like The Avengers, let’s be honest, Disney has spent more time cultivating stars than it has throwing together all ready established entities. In The Post, we’re talking about, quite possibly, the two most iconic actors of their generation (with Streep having no comparison, and Hanks having either Daniel Day-Lewis or Denzel Washington to contend with).
The film fittingly opens with Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam accompanying a group of soldiers in the jungle for “observation.” Later, he’s on a plane, when Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), asks him to explain the status of the conflict. McNamara is well aware that the war is lost, but when asked by the press (after the plane lands) about Vietnam, he lies. The only reason we know he’s lying, other than watching this movie, is The Pentagon Papers. The Papers were meant to serve as a written record. McNamara, the brainy and analytically driven Secretary of Defense never found a chart he didn’t like, and it was his undoing (when I say undoing, I mean other than sending young men off to die in an unwinnable war).
Later, we’re shown two contrasting sequences: One is of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), owner of The Washington Post, preparing for a board meeting. The other is of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Executive Editor of The Washington Post, cajoling his staff to get a female reporter to cover the marriage between Patricia Nixon and Edward Cox. The two could not contrast more, Graham exhibits her depleted self-esteem as she asks Fritz Bebe (Tracy Letts) to test her on her financial knowledge, while Bradlee stomps around the newsroom with gusto, a stiff upper lip, and a gruff voice. One character is out their element, while the other is in theirs.
The Post is littered with fantastic “little” performances (a sign of a job well done by the two screenwriters), and you’ll trip over them quicker than a New York Times crossword puzzle. Bob Odenkirk, as Ben Bagdikian, the man who knows the best payphones is sly and forceful. Bradley Whitford, as Arthur Parsons, is a combination of toxic masculinity and mansplaining in a $5,000 suit. Even Sarah Paulson, in her scant screen time as Tony Bradlee, sums up the drive of the film: that the bravery isn’t in just publishing The Pentagon Papers, but also in Graham—a woman who has always been typecast as the sucker at the poker table because of her gender—is taking a risk with her company’s and family’s future by choosing to publish.
For all of the phenomenal small bits that everyone plays, including Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal, the focus is on Hanks and Streep. I went into this film wondering how many scenes the two would share together, screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer made sure that Hanks and Streep get all the scenes together. These two talents end up having wonderful chemistry. Sometimes you can tell how much they’re playing off each other, Hanks’s domineering presence reflecting perfectly off of Streep’s guarded passivity. This is especially brought out in the mix between high and low angle shots. The whole film is a give-and-go between two high class professionals.
Each character, Graham and Bradlee, also externalize the central questions of The Post, how close is too close for journalists and politicians to be, what responsibility does the media have toward country and government, and what are the capabilities of women. The parallels between The Post and the current Trump administration are clear. In a pendant world, hanging by a gold chain, we watch as ideals are broken, as the President berates and attacks journalists for doing their jobs. We as citizens have become distrustful, not of the man in the office, but of the men and women who report. Spielberg tires to remind us of what happens when those men and women don’t question the ones pushing those “big” buttons. This excoriation isn’t confined to those in power, it’s a warning that the ties between those who run the news, and those who journalists report on, are sometimes too woven together.
In between these philosophical discussions, Spielberg fetishizes newspapers. He gives close-ups of printing presses, type blocks, and congealed ink. He views the printing process as an alchemy, as if a dying language and vision that needs to be recorded before it’s lost to the recycling bin. It wouldn’t be Spielberg without romanticism to the highest degree, and he’d probably plead guilty.
Moreover, Spielberg plays Bradlee and Graham as messiahs. This is evident after the Supreme Court hearing. As Graham descends the marbled stairs of the highest court, a court exclusively filled with men, she passes by female disciples who line the steps. These are a new generation of women who have different ideas of their roles, different from the homemaker cliche, new and vibrant in their self belief to choose their future. As Graham descends down those stairs, in so many ways, everything is different and “nothing” is the same. In so many ways, a glass ceiling asks, “who, what, when, where, why, and how?”
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Photo Credit: The Verge