Steven Spielberg’s latest couldn’t be more obviously a grasp at contemporary relevance if it was titled The Post #TheResistance. Like his last film, Bridge of Spies and 2012’s Lincoln, it’s a procedural about the levers of American power, in this case the argument within the Washington Post about whether or not to publish excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, the lengthy report on the history of American involvement in Vietnam which was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times in 1971. The hero is Katharine Graham, beloved socialite, who finds herself unsteadily in the position of Post publisher after her husband’s death (he had inherited the position from Graham’s father). Pushing her to publish is Ben Bradlee, editor-in-chief and old school newspaperman, while an army of relatives, board members and advisors urge her to be more concerned with the bottom line (the controversy around the Pentagon Papers could threaten the paper’s IPO). With Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the leads, and Spielberg’s unparalleled felicity with composition and movement, The Post has everything Liberal, Elite America could want in a movie about itself.
It’s a valedictory to the titans of media, to the mythology they built up about themselves in response to the crises of the 1960s. In this version, it was the newspapers, specifically, the owners of newspapers, who succeeded in telling truth to power, and in so doing, ended the war in Vietnam. There’s something titanically perverse about making the hero of the Pentagon Papers story not Daniel Ellsberg, or even the Times journalists who initially published Ellsberg’s stolen material, but the ultra-wealthy pal of Robert McNamera. It’s Streep’s Graham at the center of the story, and I suppose her struggle is a story worth telling. Despite her wealth and social connections, Graham undeniably suffered under patriarchy*, the condescension of her board is palpable and Streep’s performance is first-rate. But still, the implied message is that change, real change, doesn’t come from the bottom-up, but from the top-down. Change happens when the upper class wills it. That this film should be made now, concurrent with and in response to, the complete and utter failure of every value and norm propagated by this same elite (from the election of Donald Trump to the unmasking of media toads like Charlie Rose, on whose show I first encountered the lionization of Bradlee, Graham and their peers), is nothing short of bizarre.
Bridge of Spies was leavened by Hanks’s weary, working-man diplomat performance, a regular guy doing a job of work at the height of the Cold War. Lincoln was a minutely-textured portrait of a man and a country at the apex of a crisis. The Post, though, has more in common with Amistad than either of those films: a well-meaning, beautifully acted and lit slice of American history that is ultimately more supportive of present-day elites than a truly oppositional cinema would be. Just as that film is in the end more concerned with the ways in which liberal white elites react(ed) to the horrors of slavery than the experiences and perspectives of the slaves themselves, so The Post is more interested in the (self-congratulatory) response of the elite than the actions of the lower classes. The Post, largely ignoring Ellsberg outside of a brief, ill-considered opening sequence, is at its best when focused on the workers, in this case the reporters (Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian especially. How many Mr. Show fans twenty years ago would have predicted that someday Bob and David would be co-starring with Streep and Hanks in a Spielberg Oscar-hopeful?). Spielberg can make procedure hum like no other Hollywood filmmaker, though to be fair, he’s about the only one who ever tries.
*The film’s feminist credentials are hilariously undermined when, at the climax, everyone in the newsroom is listening to a woman relay the results of a trial, only to have a man rush in at the last moment and announce the key information.