2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Jesse Plemons | directed by Steven Spielberg | 1 hr 56 mins |
The release of the mangled mess Justice League, with it’s reshoots and multiple directors wrestling the movie together, has brought the term “Frankenfilm” into the pop culture zeitgeist. A movie that doesn’t feel like a single work, one cobbled together from disparate parts that are at odds with each other. While Justice League is an obvious and high profile example of this, that term is exactly what came to mind watching Steven Spielberg’s historical bio The Post as well. It feels like two films that don’t quite work together.
The Post is in keeping with the last 3 movies Spielberg has made, with this, Ready Player One and Bridge of Spies all being movies that aren’t particularly cinematic (remember RPO was deemed “unfilmable” before it came out), but became at least entertaining at Spielberg’s effortlessly skilled hand. He is able to marshal top shelf actors doing solid work and put everything together with a visual panache. Bridge of Spies being my favorite of them. All 3 of these movies fall apart in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. So a bad Spielberg movie still exceeds a lot of basic movie making qualities and works more than it should. But The Post is bad. This is the movie that struggles the most because it’s intended goal – to lionize The Washington Post for their heroic work fighting the Nixon administration and publish the pentagon papers – is constantly stumbling over history that doesn’t fold conveniently into a satisfying movie narrative.
The Post isn’t about the pentagon papers. As the movie rolls out we learn it’s The New York Times, not the Post, that first gets the papers smuggled out of the pentagon by an informant (Matthew Rhys). It’s The New York Times, not the post that organizes them into a series, publishes them over days and gets an injunction by the Nixon Administration to stop and it’s the Times, not the Post, that goes to court to fight for the freedom of the press. But Spielberg’s film is set in the offices of The Post, where we see none of the trial and none of the backroom debates that probably went on at the Times, while news director Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) stand around watching and decide when and how to get into the fight. That would have made a hell of a movie.
So why isn’t this movie about The Times? Because instead it wants to be a biopic about Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who at the start of the film has inherited the company, is the first woman in the boardroom and struggles over the dealings to bring it public. The movie splits into 2 halves. Half one, the Spielberg procedural film where Post staffers gather on the floor of Bill Bradlee’s townhouse and go through papers while Bradlee fields phone calls with the lawyers and everyone has Aaron Sorkin-lite one-liners about the Constitution. This half really works. Half two is a soft, melodramatic Oscar-bait film lined with a lot of monologues about how Katherine Graham is risking more than everyone else because she’s a woman.
Both half of this film are entirely superficial, skipping over the legal arguments surrounding the release of the papers and the nuances of Graham’s business savvy and political maneuvering. She endures the sneers of the men in the boardroom with a stiff upper lip and is greeted by a stairway full of female faces when she goes to the Supreme Court to make arguments the film doesn’t care to show us. The point is she was there, I suppose, not what she said. So the movie’s ineptitude juggling this story poses an interesting question. Katherine Graham was in fact brave, and she was a powerful face for female empowerment in a time when women retired to separate rooms after dinner to discuss the style section while the men were left to the business of running the country (we know this because the movie shows it explicitly, no subtlety here) – but does being brave and being “the first” make her story inherently interesting and inherently cinematic. The Post’s own mangling of it inadvertently argues that it isn’t.
Yeah, it’s entirely likely that this was all cooked up in Steven Spielberg’s fertile filmmaker brain, however, Amy Pascal’s name in the mix as producer gives pause that there was a studio mandate at work here as well. Former Sony film division president Pascal (along with long-time Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy) is one of the most powerful people – not just women – in Hollywood and has spent her entire career spearheading movies that were more agenda-driven then creatively-driven (Ghostbuster 2016 for example) with the agenda being to convince women that they are all victims and the only way to combat that is to put down money for a ticket to her movies.
The Post isn’t about the pentagon papers, or The Post fighting for the first amendment and it doesn’t seem like it does the story of Katherine Graham justice either. Speilberg does his best to guide the movie around the thorny bits of history that don’t quite fit the narrative, most interestingly admitting that the press holding politicians accountable was an entirely new concept that sprung out of the Nixon years as previously Bill Bradlee and Katherine Graham hobnobbed with the connected and turned a blind eye to any corruption from their powerful friends. So in The Post, they simply “heroically” shed their own partisanship.
And just to put a cherry on top of this pile of coal, the ending is damn near tacky. Playing like the post-credits sequel tag in a Marvel movie, the final scene of The Post suggests that the whole thing may have been Speilberg’s attempt to make a stealth prequel to All the President’s Men.