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Review: Don't Worry About the Media—Steven Spielberg's "The Post"

Nostalgia meets urgency in Steven Spielberg's Oscar contender, now entering a wide release.
Duncan Gray
The Post
As Steven Spielberg's The Post glides effortlessly into Oscar season as a film that's Timely with a capital T, two recent quotes from the director merit consideration. The first comes from an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, where Spielberg said, of the film's urgency, "I thought this was an idea that felt more like 2017 than 1971. I could not believe the similarities between today and what happened with the Nixon administration...I realized this was the only year to make this film." Indeed, 2017 was so much the year for the film—about the leaking of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, the Washington Post's role in publishing them, and the Supreme Court battle that followed—that Spielberg shuffled his schedule to push The Post quickly into production. 
The second quote comes from the film's premiere, when a reporter approached Spielberg on camera and asked what he thought of Donald Trump as President. Spielberg, visibly sensing that he was being baited for a controversial soundbite, brushed off the comment and said, "I think it’s very, very important that our movie is seen not as a political, partisan play on the part of what they call the ‘liberal media’ or 'liberal Hollywood'...This is truly a story about patriotism...I celebrate everybody who feels that fervor about this country." 
I can't tell if it says more about Spielberg or about 2017 that those two quotes, which aren't technically contradictions, feel like they generate so much friction between them. Taken together, they lay out a goal to be urgent but not combative, committed but not partisan, principled but not exclusionary. Such is the existence of a topical Spielberg film in the Trump era: a showman who chases that classic Hollywood ideal of a big movie "for everyone," and a year when our politics are so mercilessly tribal that the idea of a singular "everyone" in American political life feels like a rueful joke. Spielberg's stock-in-trade is innocence or naivety—pick whichever word you prefer. His best films either examine it from the inside out or appeal to it with cinematic sensation. So is it a matter of public relations, or an act of Spielbergian innocence to think that The Post can be seen as universally American in an age when the very definitions of "freedom," "patriotism," and even "journalism" are so publicly, angrily debated?
In the most schematic sense, The Post is indeed non-partisan, or roughly close to it: it is about ethics more than policy, it names Democratic and Republican administrations alike as needing a free press to keep them honest, and as for the film's own villainous GOP President, even Republicans will go on TV these days and use the word "Nixonian" as an insult. But you don't have to dig deep to see The Post as a movie that takes a side for 2017. It is a superhero origin story for the newspaper that regularly publishes stories damaging to the Trump White House. (Don't forget that the paper changed its motto to "Democracy Dies in Darkness" shortly after his inauguration.) Its heroine is Meryl Streep, the object of a brief Trump Twitter feud and hardly reticent in her own views. It exists first and foremost to offer a heart-tugging counterpoint to the cry of "Fake News" that the Trump camp has so effectively weaponized in the world of online media. It contains quite a few lines that could be cut and pasted into today's political arguments. And it ends with a startlingly on-the-nose suspense tease—next week on American history!—that the benefit of having not just a free press, but a trusted one, is that a corrupt President can be taken down.
How you'll feel about The Post is more or less preordained by how you feel about Hollywood, Spielberg, the yearly tradition of Oscar bait, and the boogeyman of a "liberal media"—and those feelings may be indifference, respect, enjoyment, or a needlessly large sense of importance. To the credit of the craftsmanship and attention to detail of all involved, it is a consistently swift and engaging journalistic thriller despite a plot that holds very few surprises. Dialogue gets tossed back and forth, the editing gallops along, and the camerawork roves around the sets in dexterous shots. Streep plays Post owner Kay Graham, a woman underestimated in a man's world, seemingly invisible to her own boardroom, but possessing the resolve to make tough decisions. Tom Hanks plays Post editor Ben Bradlee, rough around the edges and idealistic in between, sick of being scooped by the New York Times and eager to transform the Post from a local Washington paper to a larger national force. And Richard Nixon, in the movie's most unexpected touch, plays himself. Visually, he is barely more than a silhouette, but his dialogue and voice come straight from posterity’s infamous magnetic tape, as he issues orders and froths about the sons of bitches in the media who ought to have their access revoked.
Spielberg has built a tidy cinematic world by picking dark, divided, or disillusioned chapters of human history and conjuring reasons to hold onto hope, but his historical films are not always as simple or unburdened as his detractors might claim. Back in 2015, Bilge Ebiri wrote an excellent piece on how the thread running from Schindler's List (1993) to that year's Bridge of Spies is the way institutions treat human lives as a transaction, and how the heroism in those films comes not in smashing those unjust systems but in working within them. The only Spielberg film of the last ten years worthy of the director’s stature is Lincoln (2012), whose mixture of lofty American ideals and messy political pragmatism is perhaps the most morally complicated statement Spielberg has ever signed. That is, inspirational speeches may make the music swell, but only devil's choices and moral compromises can carry those values from theory to practice. 
The Post is a hard turn back towards simplicity, as if to say that simplicity is what the moment calls for. As two hours of polished dramaturgy, it moves through the nuances involved: why classified intel is kept, the political calculus when it leaks, the dilemma of news as a commercial business, and the conflicts of interest when beltway media insiders are either starstruck or on a first name basis with the powerful figures they cover. (Bruce Greenwood shows up in all-too-brief scenes as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, to put a human face—culpable, yes, but human—on government secrecy.) The film, and its hero's journey for Streep, lets these logistical complexities be processed or fall away until there is only one proper choice left—and only one proper outcome. And so the music will swell when the Supreme Court hands down a victory for the First Amendment. The music will swell again when Streep, talking to Hanks, but actually talking to the "fake news" crowd, says, "We don't always get it right, we're not always perfect. But I think if we just keep on it—that's the job." 
That Spielberg doesn't want this to be seen as divisive does, in fact, make sense. The Post is a film that reassures the audience more than it wants to fire us up. It stages its intrigue as the kind of fuzzy populist entertainment that appeals to our better angels, and then throws in a scene with a cute little girl with a lemonade stand for laughs. Its most insistent political stances are that the press should be free, that it should hold government accountable, and—given just as much focus in the moment of #MeToo—that the contributions of women in male-dominated institutions should be recognized. The Post will leave its heroes—simultaneously media legends and all-American folk—in the nostalgic glow of a newspaper printing plant, smiled upon by the Founding Fathers and composer John Williams, with the stage set for Watergate, an even more famous battle that we know "the good guys" will win. 
In other words, if you view The Post as an urgent topical statement about 2017, it confirms mainly that Spielberg is a filmmaker most comfortable expressing himself through myth. Spielberg's trips to the past and future, or to extraordinary worlds with impossible creations, far outnumber his films set in the here-and-now. As a dedicated Hollywood craftsman, he is not averse to artifice and how it can be layered to make the past feel familiar. And most of all in The Post, he has a storytelling sensibility that turns that familiar history into an enclosed parable. There is no sense in the film of a larger, chaotic world expanding off-camera or beyond the pure white light streaming through every interior window. All we get is what we see, and all we see is what the movie will show. The Post briefly takes us to the battlefields of Vietnam, set to Hollywood's nth use of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and with just enough violence to establish stakes without becoming an R-rated movie. It takes us to protests as well, where young people wave anti-war signs and sing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". And none of them, neither soldiers nor hippies, feel like they're drawn from the turbulence of history or of memory. Instead, they come from the public imagination—a pageant of extras, fresh from wardrobe. 
In such a fastidious context, the rawness of the Nixon audio tapes stands out even more. And if you wanted to be half incisive and half contrarian, you could argue that Nixon gives a more memorable performance than either Streep or Hanks. His voice is skittish and on the edge, fitful with an inner life and untold calculations. Its use is incongruous, and at times, Nixon the voice and Nixon the body double don't seem entirely in sync. But every time his name is spat out like a dirty word, the effect is a strange feedback loop: iconic movie stars playing fictionalized public figures dodging a documentary president. Myth heightens history, history validates myth.
But it is an earlier moment, also borrowing from documentary, that establishes the scope of the film's idealism. During a scene when the Pentagon papers are being copied, the film toggles back and forth between newsreel footage of different Presidents' public statements and the government's own private findings. The implication is clear: when policy puts lives on the line, the people must be told. The camera lingers on typewriters and copy machines, loading them with symbolic import. Surely if all the facts came out, and we all read, heard, or saw them, we would find a greater sense of clarity? Yet placing optimism in that idea feels so tragically anachronistic. In 2017, when we're long since saturated in controversial soundbites, info dumps, ubiquitous cameras, poorly sourced memes, and daily gigabytes of streaming video, politicians can regularly be caught in lies, evasions, and hypocrisies. The Trump of our world has said worse things than the Nixon of The Post, and he did it knowing an audience would hear them. And yet it doesn't seem to have resulted in clarity; the chaos of innumerable self-selective bubbles reigns supreme. 
That is the root of The Post: surfacing what's inherent in so many period pieces, including several of Spielberg's, it is explicitly about a shared sense of national narrative. It appeals for one, it yearns for one, and it will nominate one. There will always be partisan divides: some of us will want to fend off the Commies, others will want to form a circle and sing Bob Dylan. But at the end of the day, there are certain basics that we (whoever "we" are) can all agree are right and wrong in American political life. This yearning could be melancholy if it weren't so busy trying to inspire—the most lasting impression left by The Post is all the possible doubts that never appear on-screen, afraid to break the spell. 
The fact that The Post approaches these ideas somewhere between provocative bluntness and vague universal morality is both inevitable and ultimately more interesting than anything that happens in the story. With its final sting, The Post is timely with a lower-case t: if it is a movie that had to be made at our time, "our time" is where it is likely to stay. It is a prestige picture as part of a news cycle, a film more fit for diversion than dialogue, and an expert drama where any public debate about its political relevance is set to end not long after the Oscar telecast does. But if films as tepid as this could make a difference, what a world we'd live in.


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