Anyone who’s had more than a cursory conversation with me about cinema has probably heard one of my diatribes deriding Steven Spielberg. Sure, I loved his stuff when I was a kid who didn’t know any better, and the occasional “important” Spielberg film like Schindler’s List or Lincoln might get a partial pass from me, but for the most part, I find his saccharine sense of schmaltzy sentimentality insufferable. So which category does The Post fall into — passably important or intolerably treacly? The answer is somewhere in between, but with a subject this timely and significant, you can count me among those disappointed in Spielberg’s slapdash execution.
Spielberg’s film plays like a prequel to All the President’s Men — which could’ve been a great premise if he didn’t also play fast and loose with the facts. The movie covers the events surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post, and the first 15 minutes of the film are a master class in economy of exposition. If the rest of the film had been so succinct, it would have improved my assessment greatly. Instead, we have a meandering film composed primarily of handwringing in defiance of a known outcome. We know how this all turned out, so there’s no suspense or tension in the process leading up to the historically inevitable.
The central issue at play here is the decision made by Kay Graham (a characteristically excellent Meryl Streep), newly minted publisher of the Washington Post, to run the illicitly obtained documents that the Nixon White House sued The New York Times to suppress. In Spielberg’s view, Graham is the reluctant hero, spurred on by executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, also great) to publish in defiance of the paper’s lawyers and financiers. The problem with this setup is that Bradlee and Graham both had extensive ties to the highest echelons of power in D.C., a fact the film glosses over with a few lines of dialogue rather than genuinely acknowledging the conflict of interest those relationships would have entailed.
And that may be the single greatest flaw of The Post — a lack of conflict. Streep’s Graham hems and haws, wrings her hands and dithers, but who is she really fighting other than herself? Sure, Nixon looms as a shadowy presence, only glimpsed at a distance through a West Wing window, but his influence is only vaguely implied rather than truly felt. There are some great things on the margins of this film as well — an unlikely Mr. Show reunion between Bob Odenkirk and David Cross was a welcome respite from all the self-seriousness — but ultimately, a solid cast can’t make up for stolid storytelling.
For a film clearly intended to comment on one of the most aggressively anti-journalistic presidential administrations in history, Spielberg’s movie seems to pull its punches. It’s pacing is laconic, and yet it feels distinctly rushed. Barring a few interesting shots of the Post’s presses in action, there’s nothing much to look at. So what’s there to like? Well, people who were sold on the premise of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks indulging in some indirect Trump trolling (a pastime I myself enjoy), the very fact that this film exists constitutes its own justification for doing so. Those looking for a complex analysis of the capacity of journalists to speak truth to power, however, will find that Spielberg has buried the lead. Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.
Opens Friday at the Carolina Cinemark Asheville