Not content with getting his grubby hands all over the American presidency, Donald Trump has now invaded the world of cinema, albeit indirectly. Just was we have now entered the ‘post-Weinstein’ era, we have also entered into the ‘Trumpian’ age of cinema: now all films that come out need to be measured up against the impact the orange troll has had on the American psyche. Films that eschew political commentary – such as The Shape of Water, whose prominent position in Oscar nominations led Peter Bradshaw to describe the list as ‘cautious, comfort food’ – are accused of ignoring the realities outside for something indulgent; those that hit us over the head with dark messages about the Trump presidency, meanwhile, such as The Final Year, are seen as simplistic.
And then there is The Post: Steven Spielberg’s prestige drama about the unveiling of the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post has been acclaimed by many Goldilocks-like film critics as ‘just right’ for the level of scorn it directs at the Trumpian White House. Numerous commentators have seen links between the political landscape depicted on screen – the hostile, paranoid 1970s, during which Nixon was itching to prevent state secrets about the futility of the Vietnam War from getting out – and today’s atmosphere – equally hostile, equally paranoid, and with a penchant for just ignoring the news rather than suppressing it. Despite taking place nearly 50 years ago, many have said that it might as well have taken place in 2017.
Except… it really couldn’t. The Post is a film completely in thrall to the 1970s, and – in particular – to the newspaper industry as it was then, a world of clacking typewriters and hot metal typesetting. It’s in this milieu that Spielberg focuses on his two central characters: Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Washington Post, who took on the role following her husband’s suicide; and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) the paper’s editor who is keen to make it more than just a small-time outlet. Luckily, that opportunity lands right on his desk, when a copy of a secret government study into the history of the Vietnam Conflict – called the ‘Pentagon Papers’ – is given to his news team. The papers, which showed that the government knew that the war was unwinnable, had been published in The New York Times until they were prevented from doing so by the government. And so Graham and Bradlee are faced with a single immense decision: to publish or perish.
Spielberg surrounds this with a whole retinue of creative packaging, adding in subplots about Graham’s relationship with the American establishment, and The Washington Post ’s imminent public offering. Spielberg decides, however, to keep most of the focus on the central pairing, and it’s a wise choice, since it can be difficult to care about the surrounding baggage. Streep and Hanks are similarly supported by one of the most star-studded casts I have ever seen in a film – particularly good turns come from Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, and Alison Brie, who draw attention in a way that is impossible not to notice.
With The Post we have a director at the top of his game, working with two of the most well-respected actors; all three are industry veterans, and as a result The Post never feels anything short of professional. From the three act structure to the moving speeches, it hits all the notes you would expect it to along its two-hour runtime. The main issue is, however, that the subject matter is simply not as exciting as we might hope it to be. Unlike Spotlight, another drama centred around contentious stories – in this case the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston – The Post is focussed on the process of publication, and not on the inner workings of journalism. The team at The Washington Post go to no great pains to uncover the papers – they are simply dropped in the office one day – meaning that the main decision is simply whether or not they’re going to risk litigation and publish. And they do – a fact that I believe the vast majority of the viewers will enter the cinema knowing. As such, The Post is starved of the oxygen of frisson and intrigue that made Spotlight so successful. Long scenes are taken up with Graham agonising about what the right thing to do would be, meaning that once the papers have been published we’re treated to a whistle-stop tour of the ensuing legal battle – while skipping over the fact that Daniel Ellsberg, the official who leaked the papers, was sentenced to 115 years in prison.
While The Post is certainly a well-made film – well-acted, well-shot, well-scored – it fails to reach the levels many had hoped it would. Spielberg has attempted to wrap a traditional investigative journalism film around a structure that is actually about publishing. One of the main risks is that the investors will pull out and Graham will have to sell the company; one of the main goals is to elevate The Washington Post ’s standing to more than a local paper. The result is an enjoyable watch that leaves little trace in the imagination.
Dir: Steven Spielberg. Script: Liz Hannah; Josh Singer. Starring: Meryl Streep; Tom Hanks; Sarah Paulson; Bob Odenkirk. 116 minutes