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The Current Debate: Character Limits in Spielberg's "The Post"

The feminism of Steven Spielberg’s new film is just short of satisfying.
The main selling point of The Post, Steven Spielberg’s new film about The Washington Post’s involvement in publishing the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, is its topicality: the film was green lit, produced, and released all in 2017, beginning shortly after the Trump presidency. For such a film, it holds up surprisingly well, though contrary to what you might expect, it succeeds least of all as a movie about journalism. Christian Lorentzen elaborates at The New Republic:
If the story of a bullying president and an embattled press corps sounds familiar, that’s because Spielberg fast-tracked the script’s production last spring. Casting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who have both been vocal critics of the Trump administration, in the lead roles is more than a little on the nose. The historical allegory is neat, and obviousness isn’t a flaw in a protest movie. But as a movie about journalism, The Post substitutes righteousness for suspense, and legal and financial distresses for the paranoid dread that marks the classics of the genre, which happen to have been made during and just after the Nixon administration.
The counterargument is that The Post is not, or at least not most importantly, about journalism in the sense either of chasing the story or of the fourth estate’s role in checking the power of the government. Per Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot, the film belongs less to the reporters or executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) than to the Post’s wealthy publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep):
If the last newspaper thriller of note, the Academy Award-winning Spotlight, better than it had any rights to be, focused on the mechanics of reporting and breaking a story, The Post, though it features similar elements, has somewhat different aims. First, by focusing on Graham and her Post rather than the actions of Daniel Ellsberg (played here by Matthew Rhys), who leaked the Pentagon Papers, or the New York Times, which initially published them, the film opens itself up to dissect gender roles in the power structures of that time. The initial spec script was written by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and she succinctly doles out scenarios of polite society, which Graham herself was very much a part of, self-separating on the basis of gender. Graham, who only took over the leadership of her family's paper after the suicide of her husband, represents a curious heroine for a movie such as this. Rather than positioning her as a feminist warrior, The Post cuts closer to the truth of a woman who said, in her own biography: “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.”
There’s much to praise about Streep’s performance, which is a marvel of pacing, and easily the best thing about the movie. The payoff of the film’s climax—Graham’s decision to publish—is due in large part to how effectively Streep plays the character’s evolution. From K. Austin Collins at The Ringer:
It’s a funny role for Streep when you think about it; she’s easily one of the most heralded actors in the history of American movies, and not exactly a persona known for being easily blown aside—remember, she won an Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher. But the Kay she gives us is by turns humorously and dishearteningly disinclined from taking the reins. She leans, continually, on the advice of her advisor, Fritz Beebe (a great Tracy Letts), who speaks up for her in a board meeting when she can’t, and whose eventual advice (which she almost takes) is to just forego this Pentagon Papers thing. Despite all its historical baggage, the movie could be boiled down to Kay’s arc, the power of the press merging with her power and authority as an executive. By the time Kay rises into that sense of authority, the casting of Streep—who can’t not own a room or a frame, even when it’s crowded with men—becomes eminently clear.
The argument that The Post ought to be viewed as an outright feminist film is bolstered by the thanks given in its credits to Gloria Steinem, and its dedication to Nora Ephron, which Kristin Marguerite Doidge details on the Los Angeles Review of Books blog:
Along with Wonder Woman and Lady Bird, [The Post] is possibly one of the most important feminist films of 2017, honoring Ephron’s creed to “make a little trouble out there on behalf of women.” Though she died in 2012, her legacy lives on in the pursuit of truth by journalists in our own post-Weinstein and Trump era, as well as in the moments of triumph memorialized in [Liz] Hannah’s script. It is fitting, then, that Spielberg dedicated the film to her; she was more than his former neighbor in East Hampton, she was one of his most beloved friends and mentors.
Like Graham, Ephron lived not one or two lives, but many, as a woman determined to reinvent herself whenever she saw fit (or, as Mike Nichols put it, “like a cat, changing direction in mid-air”). The two women had much in common, particularly in proving to the world that neither grief, nor heartbreak, nor gender politics could deter them from becoming legends in media. Both suffered public affairs in their marriages, and both rose above them to become even better versions of themselves, falling in love with their jobs in the process.
For all the greatness of Streep’s performance, though, it bears considering whether The Post is the best version of Kay Graham’s story that Spielberg could have told. The large ensemble of talented actors (not least of all Tom Hanks) and the significant screen time devoted to ancillary action (including a gratuitous opening scene in Vietnam) ultimately seem like distractions from her story. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cuts to the chase at the AV Club: “Would it be too much to say that Spielberg has trouble directing from the perspective of Graham, one of the very few female protagonists in his body of work?”
He zeroes in on gestures—the way Graham unclips an earring as she answers the phone, or a terrific bit of sound design that has her keep jangling her keys during a tense conversation with McNamara, a close friend. But though Streep gives a fine, credible performance, Spielberg’s famously flexible camera only perks up when it reverts to the boy’s-eye-view that is his signature: as Ellsberg secrets the first volume of the Pentagon Papers out of RAND; as a Post intern bluffs his way into the Times building, acting as Bradlee’s spy; as Bagdikian has his meeting with Ellsberg in a Boston motel room, every inch of bed- and floorspace stacked with papers. The simple truth about Spielberg is that the darkest and most mature moments in his films are subversions of his own most naïve instincts and sentiments. As a filmmaker, he has become more thoughtful with age, but his unshakeable inner child is still more interested in printing presses than the uncertainties of steering a company.
Put another way, Graham seems to interest Spielberg mostly in the way she represents a challenge to the entrenched power structures of her time. Inordinate dialogue is spent on the notion that publishing the Pentagon Papers will upend the cozy relationship between her paper and Washington’s elite, while almost none is spent expressing a sense of her interiority. That clearly suits the film’s intent to comment on yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but it might also keep it from being rather as rich—and lasting—as it might have been.
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The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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