The Post (aka The Pentagon Papers / The Papers) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
As with Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a film that felt necessary to make. During a time when journalism is so undervalued, demeaned by everyone from YouTube commentators to the President of the United States, it’s important to remember how essential the free press is to society at its most challenged of moments. When the trashy news site Gawker was brought down by a high-priced court battle, it’s easy to see the small picture of the mean-spirited outlet publishing the sex tape of Hulk Hogan. But if a journalistic firm can be taken down for the right amount of cash, what’s to stop any wealthy client from taking down a publication simply for the distaste of politics, religion, or, well, anything?
For the New York Post of 1971, they faced greatest opponent of the US government. When secret papers were smuggled out of the Pentagon to reveal the dark path that led to the Vietnam War, President Nixon became so hot under the collar that publishing these documents would lead to newspaper organizations being brought to court. The New York Times is the first to find and publish some of these documents, leading to them promptly being barred from publication from the government. Realizing they could face prison time, the New York Post debates about what to do with the other batch of the Pentagon papers they come into discovering.
There are many conflicting views on this subject. For lead editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), he’s committed to publishing the documents as he knows it’s the right thing to do. Even after consulting with the legal team and realizing he could go to prison over this, he still thinks it’s a fight worth fighting. Publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) has a tougher call to make as the one who ultimately has to make the decision of whether or not to publish. She’s struggling to hold control over a company she wants to succeed and has friends within Washington that she could lose if she publishes these documents. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hopes she will as he risked a lot of time and possible jail time for finding these leads. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) would rather she not, more or less begging for her understanding in knowing that the truth will come out. All of this leads up into one heck of a heated argument over the phone.
A film such as this seems as though it could become too political or preachy and Spielberg certain tap-dances around that level of timely importance for the film. Thankfully, he sticks to publisher perspective, favoring the press’ ordeal with being silenced and less of the political powers doing the silencing. As with all of Spielberg’s films, he brings us deep into the trenches, sharing the same space as the reporters and editors. We get a sense of the office day, running up and down the typing pool with new leads and infiltrating competing newspapers with semi-illegal tactics. Some of the best moments from a cinematography perspective feature the old-fashioned production of the paper, from the rough concepts to the assembled plates to the building-shaking movement of the printing machinery. It really nails home the excitement of what could have been a fairly dry thriller of printing government documents.
That being said, Spielberg’s rushed production seems to handle the importance with perhaps a few too many theatrics. There’s a great significance with Graham’s position as a woman of power, always hinted at with every pressing decision. This point is nailed home too clearly in her somber, bedside speech and then smashed in with a battering ram in the scene where she descends the courthouse steps with all the admiring women surrounding her. There’s also a few too many winks and nudges in the dialogue about how darkly comical such an important story reflects today. There are several awkward bits of dialogue that highlight this aspect, the most prominent being a muttering that this ordeal of censoring the press couldn’t possibly ever be as worse as it is in 1971. Going one step further, the final shot sets up Watergate almost like a thrilling trailer for The Post 2.
I feel bad that The Post didn’t hit me harder, but that’s possibly because the film feels the need to be so big. Spielberg’s bluntness almost robs the film of having something more to go along with its historical importance. As a result, the film becomes more entertaining for the fantastic performances than the subtleties of the grander themes. At least students will have one heck of a film to watch in the classroom with the combined talents of Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks on screen. Oscar bait? Perhaps, but at least there’s a purpose to the picture, perhaps more relevant than any other film of 2017. Streep’s character ends the picture by stating that the free press will make mistakes, but their purpose is essential. The exact same thing can be said of the film for not being one of Spielberg’s best, but certainly his most meaningful.