The Post and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Oh good! Now that it’s officially 2018, the rest of us can FINALLY see the best movies of 2017! Because THAT doesn’t seem like a backwards approach to releasing critically acclaimed films; ESPECIALLY ONES BY THE MOST FAMOUS DIRECTOR OF ALL TIME! Sigh… whatever. My feelings about theatrical release schedules aside, there’s been a lot of buzz about this movie being yet another Awards Darling what with the big name cast, the legendary director, and the timely subject matter given the political climate we are currently and TORTUROUSLY living under. That said, I’m not always the biggest fan of movies that seem so perfectly designed to soak up Oscars (*cough* The King’s Speech *cough*) and while I didn’t give it the most GLOWING review at the time, I do think that Spotlight is an unreasonably high bar for any film to try and reach which certainly seems to be the goal here given the topic at hand at hand the pedigree behind it. Then again, how can you go wrong with Spielberg? If your answer to that question is Hook by the way, you’re just flat out wrong. HOOK IS AWESOME!! Anyway, does Spielberg manage to eke out yet and another cinematic masterpiece to add to his collection, or is this simply relying on his name to sell it both at the box office and with critics? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows The Washing Post during the time The Pentagon Papers (a study of the likelihood of victory in Vietnam that indicated that the government knew there was no chance of winning yet still committed forces there anyway) were being released by The New York Times and Nixon’s Justice Department was doing what they could to stop it. Now The Washington Post wasn’t doing so well as its owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is seen as an ineffective leader for reasons that CLEARLY have very little to do with her actual abilities (I WONDER WHAT ELSE IT COULD BE!?) and was in the middle of trying to find outside investment when this all started to unfold. The editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is itching to get his hands on some of the papers that The Times had gotten and were forced to stop publishing due to a federal court injunction (COMPLETELY unprecedented in American history), but even if he WERE to find the it’d be a huge risk for everyone involved; especially Miss Graham who has the most invested in the company. Eventually though, one of the assistant editors Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) manages to get his hands on not just the parts The Times obtained, but more or less the WHOLE damn report straight from the source itself Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). With Ben having EXACTLY what he wants and a staff of likeminded reporters to back him up, it all comes down to Miss Graham to decide whether or not the risk of publishing these documents in her paper outweigh the potential good that having such documents out there will do for journalism and first amendment rights. Even then though, if they jump the gun and the Nixon Administration wins whatever court battle would certainly lie ahead, that could lead to an even WORSE seizure of unchecked executive power. Will Kay find a way to get the truth out there without losing everything else in the process? What can The Justice Department and Nixon do to this newspaper and its staff if these documents are released in spite of the injunction placed on The Times? The REAL question is, will this movie win MOST of the awards or ALL of the awards?
I liked it! It’s a perfectly fine movie that gets bumped up a few points for the great direction (naturally) as well as the remarkable cast. I STILL like Spotlight better though which is a comparison that certainly dampens my enthusiasm, but there are still some legitimate flaws here that I would have noticed had I not had something to directly compare it to. It has an uneven pace to it, there’s too much meandering in the first half, and a few moments in here are a bit too goofy given the subject matter and the overall tone (the why he visually integrates the Nixon tapes is incredibly cheesy), but let it never be said that Spielberg doesn’t know how to make an entertaining AND RELEVANT film. What other movie this year can boast to be about systemic sexism, abuse of government power, AND the necessity of a free and open press, while ALSO being the big screen reunion of Mr. Show!?
So before I start acting like a Grumpy Gus, let’s once again remind ourselves that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time and that his films are always a step above what anyone else (or in this case ALMOST anyone else) would do with this kind of material. I was genuinely impressed with the cinematography in this which I wasn’t really expecting from a story about newspapers, but his camera weaves in and out of the tightly packed newsroom with such skill and grace that you almost suspect he’s developed some sort of super 4K camera phone that he’s attached to a magic drone; a theory that probably isn’t THAT far outside the realm of possibility considering how many resources this guy has to work with. Also, it’s a small detail, but the use of ACTUAL newspapers in this movie is rather interesting as he gives them a unique life of their own and a genuine presence within the movie. It’s almost nostalgic to see people ACTUALLY reading a newspaper or to see one flying around in the breeze after the news stand guy cuts open the bundle on a windy day. It certainly drives home the importance of the work they do when you see it in the background of most scenes, and I guess if you’re gonna find ONE dude that will make people feel that sense of nostalgia over pieces of paper, instead of say action figures or old movies, then Spielberg’s the guy to do it.
Acting across the board is pretty solid. I always love seeing Bob Odenkirk in anything and he equips himself quite well against seasoned OSCAR NOMINATED actors like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, though since the cast is so big he’s in it a little bit less than you’d hope for. In fact, other than Hanks and Streep, you don’t really get to see ANYONE nearly as much as you’d like to since they’re all fighting over the same two hours of screen time. Matthew Rhys is great as Daniel Ellsberg, but he’s really on in the film for two scenes; ditto Jesse Plemons who comes in only comes in at the third act. David Cross, Carrie Coon, and a few others are decent as the rag tag collection of reports who Tom Hanks has doing his busy work, but they never really become their own characters or have much of an identity outside of being THE REPORTERS, and sadly there really isn’t any interaction between Odenkirk and Cross which I GUESS could have been distracting, but is still a bit disappointing. That said though, it really isn’t there movie as much as it is the two most bankable stars in this cast. Tom Hanks is fine even if he feels a bit on autopilot here, but the real standout is Meryl Streep who truly ends up deserving every bit of screen time she gets. At first, you do really sympathize with her position as she’s routinely belittled and talked over even though she’s the owner of the newspaper, but she doesn’t have the fiery instinct or take no prisoners swagger that Tom Hanks has with his approach to journalism. She’s quibbling over jumping the gun and pissing off potential investors while Tom Hanks, though not for particularly NOBLE reasons, is out there chomping at the bit to run every last bit of The Pentagon Papers that he can get his hands on, so for many people they’ll naturally gravitate towards his side of the argument. What Spielberg is doing here though is planting the seeds of a fantastic bait and switch as we get to the third act and the perspective changes; not just the way that WE see it but the way that Tom Hanks sees the situation as well. Say that the government really does come after The Washington Post and this story ruins the paper. Well… so what? HE’S gonna be fine and several of the journalists will be as well as they find homes at other papers. Kay Graham who is the OWNER of the paper? She loses this, she loses everything. She has ALL the skin in the game and will suffer the greatest consequences for her editor’s actions, and it’s a sobering moment when this becomes clear to Ben as well as to the audience once his wife (Sarah Paulson) lays it all out for him. We all know that it’s ten times harder to be a woman at a job than it is to be a man, but this movie does a really great job of not just SAYING that, but taking you on the journey of discovering that and possibly realizing your own biases that you didn’t realize were there, but then again… maybe it was just me. I mean if you ARE much more aware of the nuances of these issues you PROBABLY don’t need Sarah Paulson to spell it out for you, but I think it helps having that in the movie for everyone else that could use a little push towards understanding; and sure, there’s certainly an argument to be had that we’re still dealing with rich white people problems (even if she loses the paper, it’s not like her family will instantly plummet below the poverty line) which pales in comparison to the overwhelming tragedy that the Vietnam War caused and how publishing these documents would potentially be a step towards ending that, but at Meryl Streep does a good job of bringing a lot of humanity to the role that gives you at least SOME reason to sympathize with the consequences that are facing her.
Now all that said; I didn’t really fall in love with this movie, and maybe there’s a certain amount of GENERATIONAL DISCONNECT that’s keeping me from fully embracing this as much as I did Spotlight. Sure, the Nixon administration was a HUGE world turning point in our history that seems to have been the pivotal point in the lives of many Baby Boomers, and it’s certainly the right time to use it as a parallel for modern day political issues with the Shithole In Chief (this administration will certainly be a turning point for Millennials that OUR kids will be as apathetic to understanding as some of us are to the late sixties and early seventies), but to me at least, I just didn’t connect to a newspaper uncovering the details in The Pentagon papers as I did to watching the investigative journalists uncovering the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal. To a certain extent, it DOES have to do with me actually being around for that and I can still remember how much things changed following those intimal reports that grew into an avalanche of accusations and a tarnished reputation of The Vatican’s that they have never, and SHOULD never, recover from. And yet, I don’t think that’s the full story here. I think there’s more to the disparity between my opinions than just the fact that I was around, because it’s not like I ACTUALLY knew anything about Cardinal Law, The Boston Globe, or any of the members of Spotlight prior to that movie; the same way I didn’t know anything about The Washington Post, Kay Graham or even some of the key players to the story itself like Robert McNamara and Daniel Ellsberg. I think it basically comes down to Spotlight as a film having a lot more focus with its much smaller central cast and a much clearer sense of purpose throughout. It’s very straightforward, but in doing so it allows each one of the members to stand out and it also means that we have a very clear sense of where things are going; what each revelation means and the subsequent consequences of it. The most important moment for me in that whole movie is when the team is in the basement of The Globe looking at one of the Catholic Church directories to see if the priests they’re investigating were removed at the time of the accusations. They find that they WERE, but the designation for WHY was “sick leave”. Then they notice the other directories; dozens of them. It hits them like a train what this could mean and they grab every last one that they can carry to check against every single priest that they have accusations of and to see how many others were on “sick leave” as well. The movie was already moving at a great pace with revelations coming every few minutes, but this is when the scope of it all becomes clear to them and when they realize they were merely fumbling in the dark with a flashlight until now. There’s a scene KIND of like that at about the thirty minute mark (ironically the only scene with Michael Cyril Creighton who was in Spotlight as well) when The Washington Post gets a solid chunk of The Pentagon’s report dumped on them by an anonymous activist, but it doesn’t really BUILD to anything and Tom Hanks’s character can barely give more than a surprised grunt about it. It’s ultimately a false start for the paper as The Times publishes the same material a day early which I’m assuming is part of THE TRUE STORY, but it doesn’t make the ten minutes for it to be play out all that satisfying or particularly interesting. There are little bits and pieces of this story that are like that which feel like the film is scrambling for something to give us as much as The Washington Post is trying to find something to publish, but to Spielberg’s credit he DOES put enough flair in his directing that it never becomes boring to watch, and the film finds its focus in the second half which is where this does become ABOUT as good as Spotlight. It was no doubt important to set up a few of the plot points early on which would pay off later, particularly when it comes to Meryl Streep’s character, but a slightly more streamlined approach that didn’t meander as much would have kept the momentum up and made the distinction between the decent first half and the downright AMAZING second half much less pronounced.
The movie is just fine! If you’re a fan of Spielberg or movies other than Summer Blockbusters, you’ll surely fine something to enjoy here which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who is THIS consistently great. Sure, none of his movies in the last decade have been my FAVORITE films of his, nor are they my favorite films of those respective years, but they’re reliably solid which is more than can be said for some other directors out there. MAYBE you don’t have to go out of your way to see it at the theater, but it’s worth checking out if you can find the time for it. That or you can rewatch Spotlight which is still on Netflix! One or the other!