A Post on “The Post”

Just a little post about The Post. I think it ranks with Spielberg’s 6 or 8 tent pole films, the ones we remember him for, and for many of the same reasons his best ones are great.

Spielberg seems at his best when he needs to rise to the occasion and reinvent himself in an entirely new kind of movie. He doesn’t always succeed. In the final analysis, most of his films leave me pretty cold, but the top ten or so excite me so much I’ll watch them pretty much any time. What’s exciting to me at the moment is that, if you leave out BFG, his last three: Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The Post have all scored and they’re all in the mature mode he’d been attempting and failing at since the mid 1980s. But now something has clicked for him. Don’t get me wrong: there were at least a half dozen times I rolled my eyes at his cartoon touches in this movie: hippies from central casting singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” at protests took the prize in that department; it was more Forest Gump than Medium Cool, and I’d have preferred the latter. And I’m on the fence about the opening scene — the thousandth time we’ve seen Vietnam battle scenes staged to a dinosaur rock soundtrack, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle”. Half of me went, “Is he ripping off Coppola, de Palma, Stone and Kubrick?” But nah, it’s Spielberg — it’s homage. And anyway, it’s a bait and switch, because as we all know, this is a NEWSPAPER movie, and that’s its own discrete genre.

Spielberg honors that genre here too in all sorts of ways. Above all, I got strong whiffs of Hawks, and it was pretty wonderful. Several scenes feature tentative but entertaining experiments in overlapping dialogue, which I’m not sure I’ve encountered in his films before. The camaraderie of the mostly male ensemble, a world in which a female is forced to assert herself is very Hawksian. And  of course, the other obvious antecedent is All the Presidents Men (1976), which featured some of the same characters in the very same setting.

Man, what an all star cast, not just the two leads, but nearly every single face in the film is one you recognize from one or more popular tv shows, as though Spielberg were amassing his strongest case — this is a team, a hand picked team of greats, enlisted to send a single message, one so timely, one so needed at the present political moment that it gives the film itself an impact resonant of its topic. The film itself is like a headline, or the release of the Pentagon Papers. It is a message to the current President and his administration that its creators will not sit idly by while the First Amendment is trampled, and it is a clarion call to the audience, educating some, emboldening others to be as brave as they can be, reminding them that there is power in numbers, but somebody has to be first, and that someone might have to be you.

Spielberg literally fetishizes the media in this film, gives us close ups on the apparatus that gets the word out, shows us the whole process, from the Xerox machine on which Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) laboriously photocopies his classified report, to the process of typesetting and printing the newspapers that will hit the street. “Love it, cherish it”, he seems to be telling us. It could all go away. To strike that home, Richard Nixon plays HIMSELF in real audio tapes from his own wiretaps. Can it get any realer for ya? There’s a man in the White House at this very moment who threatens almost daily to thwart and jail the Fourth Estate, and he’s on the phone right NOW talking the very same shit to his lackeys. What was it Stephen Miller said on MSNBC? “This President will not be questioned”? You’re on notice, Stephen Miller: Here in America, we question Presidents.

Meryl Streep is a force of nature for the 100th time here, and if I became too aware of the scope of her technical achievement a couple of times it’s only because I have been around the process and could imagine what was involved both in producing the emotion and capturing it on film. There was one particular moment, the most powerful in the film, that struck me like a full court shot in basketball on her part, and also on Spielberg’s and the cameraman’s. It’s impossible not to love Tom Hanks either, although he is more a movie star than an actor, and I’ve come to think of him as one of the rare modern ones who are as great as those from the classic studio era. Like Jimmy Stewart (whom I equate Hanks with all the time now), when Hanks stretches (as he does here) the artificiality is unmistakable, but you forgive it because he’s HIM. And he’s no less grounded, he’s making scenes land, he just has a different technique. It was fascinating watching these two heavyweights act together with their different methods. It’s kind of what Hollywood is all about. Another pleasing aspect of this film was that Hanks, playing the Bostonian Kennedy crony Ben Bradlee has dialed that chowderhead accent way back, because whew boy did it almost ruin Catch Me If You Can. 

And as for Spielberg, he seems top be outgrowing the “popcorn” stigma, still a stylist, but finding his way into profundity, if only civic profundity, in a way that reminds me of John Ford. Yes, his hand can be heavy on the tiller at times. Even my young son caught the obviousness of a certain tracking shot of Streep’s Katharine Graham, charging victoriously out of the Supreme Court down a stone staircase packed with worshipful women, a scene that looks like it was staged by Norman Rockwell. But here’s the thing: as with Rockwell’s illustration, this is symbolism in a popular art form — an art form that is too often used to promote the message “Solve your problems by shooting your enemies”.  I hold the industry directly responsible for the callous and cruel cultural climate we’re in at the moment. This powerful medium can decisively be used to counter that message, as it has been in the past. The simple object is to reach the masses, inspire them, make them more humane, while entertaining them. If you’re smarter than the movie, congratulations. I’m grateful for The Post’s existence, and that its maker knew that it was an important statement to make in the present climate.