The Post (2017)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 11, 2018 @ tonymacklin.net.

In the present age where journalism may face an existential moment, The Post is merely a glimpse into the past. The movie won't be remembered in the future. It's too soft for that.

The Post is the story of how Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Katherine "Kay" Graham (Meryl Streep) dealt with the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the Washington Post.

In 1971 the Washington Post was a minor paper with Graham as owner and Bradlee as executive editor. Graham was trying to get funds by going public on the Stock Market. The banks somewhat reluctantly decided to give money.

Bradlee was searching for hard news. But if they secured the Pentagon Papers and published them, the very existence of the Washington Post would be threatened. The money might vanish, and they could go to jail. The New York Times had published the first part of the Pentagon Papers, but they had been stopped by federal court order, when the Nixon White House and Attorney General John Mitchell intervened. The case was in the court.

Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) had stolen documents from the Rand company, where he worked. He had 7,000 pages copied surreptitiously. It took him many days to do pages and return them without being caught. These documents - the Pentagon Papers - had been created at the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). They were secret, but revealed a history - starting in the tenure of President Truman - of ugly duplicity about Vietnam and the war. The public had been totally misled.

Ellsberg gave the copies to the Times and then the Post. The very right to publish was being challenged. What were the newspapers to do?

The Post is a film about political obscenity that avoids obscenity. In one sequence that shows a crowd doing the famous chant, "We don't want your fucking war," the obscene adjective is blurred. Don't want to upset anyone.

The Post is a film about talking and walking. It's talky, but the dialogue is mediocre. And it has constant walking - just going from place to place.

It may not seem fair to compare The Post to other films. But all's fair in love and war. And criticism.

The obvious comparison is with All the President's Men (1976), probably the best film ever made about journalism and politics. The Post simply is not in its class. It lacks the insight, intensity, and chemistry of All the President's Men.

Both films were about the Washington Post, but only one is compelling. There are a myriad of memorable scenes in All the President's Men. Are there any in The Post? One of the climactic scenes in The Post is a 4-way conference call. Hardly the stuff of drama.

Ben Bradlee is a key figure in both films. Hanks takes on a role that Jason Robards, Jr. owns. Robards gave the role a special gravitas and intelligence, for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Tom Hanks's performance of Bradlee is not one of his many memorable performances. It's Joe and the Volcano at The Post.

The original screenplay by producer and first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah focused on Katherine Graham, and reportedly writer Josh Singer was brought in to enhance the role of Bradlee.

Hannah does not give Meryl Streep enough to work with. She portrays Graham as a socialite (emphasis on lite), who throws fancy soirees and has a lot of personal contacts with powerful people. As owner of the newspaper in a men's club, she has to grow.

But the personal scenes - especially a bedroom conversation between Kay and her daughter - stall the momentum of the film. And, near the end, there is a sophomoric scene when Kay walks from the courthouse through a crowd of rapt young women standing by in adoration. It's contrived and cheap. Kay Graham deserves better.

In All the President's Men, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) had appeal and chemistry. The actors filled their characters' quest with passion and humanity.

The supporting cast in The Post is merely serviceable. Matthew Rhys is bland as Daniel Ellsberg. The documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) shows the actual Ellsberg as a fascinating person - a figure of significant depth, ego, and sensitivity. The screenplay in The Post keeps Ellsberg one-dimensional.

Bob Odenkirk is passable as dogged journalist Ben Bagdikian.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, and it is not among his best films. Bridge of Spies (2015) is a better film, with a better characterization for Hanks, and a brilliant performance by Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar.

Spielberg in The Post seems to channel director Ron Howard, who directed The Paper (1994), with Michael Keaton. The Post has some of the feeling of The Paper. Spielberg suggested Howard see writer David Koepp, and Howard and Koepp collaborated on The Paper.

Both Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard have directed Tom Hanks in four films. The Post is Spielberg's first film directing Meryl Streep. A better screenplay would have helped. Streep does what she can with a fluttering character.

The Post is a decent movie.

That's its curse.

You have to have more than decency to fight indecency. In 1971 or 2018.

© 2000-2018 Tony Macklin