Smart journalism in “The Post”

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in “The Post”

Steven Spielberg’s recently released film “The Post” is a very particular kind of “culturally relevant message film.” Any critic who has written anything about it in the last month since its release is aware of it. Everything in the film, from its very literal-minded script, to its clunky final scene, is aware of it. Everything around and a lot of what’s within “The Post” seems focussed on proclaiming, “This film has something important and relevant to say.” A proclamation like this can take any film off its rails if it’s done without subtlety. The thing is, though, when “The Post” is smart enough to give itself time to breathe on its own, it’s a very good film.

Spielberg, the director, has a tell that threatens to destabilise many of his films, especially the ones of this century. He doesn’t know when to let his audiences think for themselves. This gives way to final scenes that sometimes, often inorganically, summarise his point, like the Jews placing rocks on Schindler’s tomb in “Schindler’s List,” or the framing device that bookends “Saving Private Ryan,” or that on-the-nose final scene in “Lincoln.” Spielberg’s sensibility as a director is to hold the hand of the audience and lead them to the point. And so, “The Post” ends with a scene one year after the main plot of the film is resolved. This last scene is the infamous break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June, 1972. This scene, a precursor for the Watergate scandal that rocked the face of American journalism and American politics, is immediately peculiar for the way it jarringly leaves the diegesis of the film. It sticks out. Luckily, for a film that is so unsubtly about the power of the media, it’s to the credit of “The Post” that this is the only thing close to a cringe-worthy moment in it.

The story itself is more compelling for the minutiae and micro issues at work than the grand statements the advertising of the film has emphasised. A man called Daniel Ellsberg has been discomfited by what he sees as the US government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg decides to do his bit to bring the issue to the press. Luckily, Ellsberg is an important player in Washington, with high enough security clearance to steal and copy almost 7,000 pages worth of documents that prove the mishandling of the war. Although this plot point is the impetus for the film, it is not the focus of the film. In 1971, the Washington Post is lagging behind its major competitors, coming off a decade where it was seen as a mouthpiece for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Its major competitor, The New York Times seems to be doing more incisive work. As its publisher, Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is aware that all the men around her think she is unfit for the job she inherited from her father. She has brought in the erratic Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, as editor and is friendly but not altogether impressed by her either. The New York Times gets the story first but the government intercedes, claiming national security. In the tip of a century, the Washington Post gets their hands on all 7,000 pages of the document. The rest of the drama will play out in the will they/won’t they thriller plotline.

Films about politics are a dime a dozen. Films about the minutiae of the newspaper business are less so. “The Post,” expectedly, falls in the shadows of the archetypal newspaper film, “All the President’s Men,” the clunky ending all but assures that. But, still, Spielberg’s holds up well against Alan J Pakula’s 1976 film by doing an excellent rendering of what it takes to get a story to print. There are real world issues being distilled here – the place of women in the workplace, 1970s sexism, the role of the media, the reach of the government, the role of the government. Depending on the scene, “The Post” acquits them well but the film works best when it realises how the main story of “this is how newspapers work” supplement those other themes rather than vice versa. And, mostly, the film gets that. The thing about “The Post” is that it sounds a lot more stolid and serious than it is. The film is never dour, it’s funny and sometimes even manages to be fun.

The climax is a telephone conversation between five persons on three different phones and is the best example of thriller filmmaking done via technology of the past year. The moment is kinetic, propulsive and immediately compelling and depends on a close shot of Meryl Streep’s face, surrounded by men, which is probably the single best shot of the film. When it gets out of its own way, the film is so good that I am almost moved to ignore the moments it does not. Like a clunky scene where the wasted Sarah Paulson (as a supportive wife) must tearfully proclaim the film’s central thesis, or the script’s numerous assumptions that everyone watching the film is aware of 1970s politics and media. In fact, the way “The Post” seems so geared towards a specifically American audience in some cases is odd, considering how relevant it is on global scale. And, of course, there is that terrible final scene.

Still, just like a good article cannot be upended by its final line or its lede, all the goodwill of “The Post” cannot be destroyed by the ending. This is smart, adult filmmaking that is wise and knowledgeable enough about its topic to make its drama into something that runs smoothly and efficiently. It’s hard to argue against it.

“The Post” is currently playing at Caribbean Cinemas

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