Tuesday 23 January 2018

What the papers said: "The Post"

Steven Spielberg always was a voracious scholar of history - it's why his back catalogue encompasses projects as diverse as 1941 and The Color Purple - but as he's entered his twilight years, this director has become especially fascinated by the particulars of American democracy. 2012's Lincoln followed a Republican leader as he sought to stitch a ruptured nation back together, and do the right thing by the least powerful of his constituents; 2015's Bridge of Spies, which may well endure as the stealth masterpiece of this late period, turned its attention to U.S. foreign policy, and the country's capacity to do right by the lowliest of other nations. The Post, detailing the efforts of the Washington Post to publish extracts from the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971, is Spielberg making a timely show of support for the idea of a free press - a stance all but guaranteed to elicit favourable critical notices, even before the first loving montage of metallic type being set. It's almost too apt that the film should replay these events at a moment when the fourth estate again finds itself under threat from a darkly muttering President holed up inside the White House like Pacino at the end of Scarface, but then a lot about The Post is nothing if not on the nose.

The presence of talismanic editor Ben Bradlee and the immediately recognisable geography of the Washington Post newsroom marks Spielberg's film from the off as operating in the shadow of 1976's all-timer All the President's Men, and it doesn't help that the new movie opens up on such a microscopically small level. We first find Bradlee (played here by a gravel-voiced, combative Tom Hanks) scratching his head about the fact the Post's society reporter has been barred from Tricia Nixon's wedding; meanwhile, the paper's owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, dialling down the imperiousness) is being coached through the finer detail of the paper's imminent flotation on the New York Stock Exchange. What the screenwriters, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, are working towards is some sense of the inner workings and backroom policy shifts that dictate what a newspaper eventually runs on its front page, and they've found an ally in late Spielberg, with his sharpened eye for nuance and irony. It transpires the Post was originally scooped to this story by the New York Times, only for the Papers to be returned to Bradlee's lap once the White House had slapped a gagging order on his rivals - the first time such extreme measures had been put in place by an administration. Bradlee's team are not quite, then, the crusading journo archetypes of yore, rather accidental heroes who stepped up and seized a moment.

Spielberg, adhering to the Preston Sturges dictate that there is a kind of democracy inherent in large ensemble casts, has the players at his disposal to keep the politics and investigative legwork reasonably interesting. Hannah and Singer's most prominent throughline concerns Graham - who inherited ownership of the Post after her late husband Philip passed, and was apparently considered something of a makeweight by her peers - and how she came to find her voice in rooms overrun by patrician males. Yet Spielberg, taking a cue (and a player) or two from quality television, knows he has at least one nifty B-plot to cut away to involving senior reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), sent to track down the elusive whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). Slimmer pickings elsewhere: it's become something of a standing joke that Spielberg can think of absolutely nothing for his heroes' wives to do, and you may see it as either an upgrade or an even greater waste that it should be Sarah Paulson who, as Bradlee's missus, gets to hand the leading man his jacket and make turkey sandwiches for the rest of the Post's payroll. (It may be a prerequisite of films in which Meryl Streep Saves The World that no other woman is permitted a look in: The Post's end credits inform me that small-screen heroines Alison Brie and Carrie Coon were in there somewhere, but neither is assigned a single memorable moment.)

With regard to other limitations, The Post emerges as the plainest-looking Spielberg film in some while. The director's regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski made tremendous play with the light-and-dark shadings of Bridge of Spies, but here looks to have suffered from the reportedly accelerated shooting schedule. There's one striking sequence that finds Bradlee and his reporters gathering in the editor's front parlour to parse the Papers' several hundred pages: the very Spielbergian radiance streaming through the front windows is a neat visual translation of the old adage about sunlight being the best disinfectant. Otherwise, we're left looking at functional set-ups elevated by the quality of their dramatic personnel. Granted, it is still a rarity to encounter a 21st century studio release that addresses its audience as intelligent adults, and Spielberg throughout retains his peerless sense for the big scene, the big moment. All the leads connect up in an extended sequence, midway through the picture, in which Graham, pulled out of a party to take a conference call with her backers and her employees, has to weigh up whether or not to defy Nixon and run the story; never mind that we know the outcome, the combined weight of Spielberg and Streep's choices succeed in making these few minutes of hesitation seem somehow epochal.

Trouble is, we then immediately have to sit through a speech in which Paulson underlines what a brave stance this was for a woman to take - Spielberg restrains himself from flashing the word "FEMINISM" up on screen, Wayne's World-style, but it must have been close - and then a truly awful bit of staging that has Graham walking triumphantly down a section of courtroom steps apparently reserved for gasping female admirers. Spielberg is so determined to drum his (not unworthy) points home that he keeps lapsing into overstatement, in a way All the President's Men, convinced its audience was keeping up, never did: his film ends with a very silly coda involving the Watergate complex that will almost certainly leave one or two dimbulbs wondering whether we're in for The Post II: Post Harder. It is absolutely a film for our noisy, fractious moment, and its finest scenes are up there with the best of this director's recent output, but a light touch is not one of The Post's strengths: where Bridge of Spies had the Coens and Rylance and a certain irreverence that might also be worth defending in some way, The Post is Tom and Meryl repeatedly telling their core audience everything they might want to hear for two hours. If you happen to fall into that demographic, it might be considered ticket money well spent, but it also positions the film far closer to a dazzlingly appointed group hug than it is to great cinema.

The Post is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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