Daniel Ellsberg, the heroic whistleblower once famously described as ‘the most dangerous man in America’, is shoehorned into a couple of brief moments in Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post. Distracted by other things, such as recalibrating history to suit the presence of his marquee actors – Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks – the director grudgingly concedes that Ellsberg might have had something to do with this whole Pentagon Papers thing, given he, you know, was the person who risked his life to leak it.
A greater hero, Spielberg emphasises, was a well-to-do, VIP-wooing blue blood with a fondness for hosting cocktail soirees. This is Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post. She put down her martinis to contemplate difficult decisions, i.e. to publish or not to publish, which in Spielberg’s hands naturally involve streams of slickly contrived dialogue (“The press was formed for the governed, not the government”) and invoke mention of the founding fathers.
Graham rubs up against a howlingly sexist industry/society, where blokes call the shots and women look admiringly at her, from outside meeting rooms, whenever she busts up a sausage convention – which is every time she enters a meeting room. Some of that sexism creeps into the film itself: her character’s screen time is eaten up by undeserving men, while the worthiest of all (Ellsberg) is relegated to the sidelines.
The core of The Post is two people flapping their arms in furious agreement.
You could argue The Post’s focus lies elsewhere; that this a different take on the story. And yet it opens as a tale specifically framed about the war, The Pentagon Papers and and the whistleblower’s efforts. Graham is introduced only after vision of soldiers trampling through a jungle in the rain, then an introduction to the duplicitous Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) then a (rare) scene-setting moment with Ellsberg.
The screenplay, by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, calibrates the narrative’s focus in service of the Streep and Hanks show. The writers work hard to create friction between Graham and The Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee (so Streep and Hanks can grandstand), even though they work on the same side and, on all key decisions, ultimately have a virtually identical stance. The core of The Post is two people flapping their arms in furious agreement.
Bradlee is the dyed-in-the-wool, chest-beating editor who barks at colleagues (“get out of my office!”) but whose rough edges have clearly been smoothed. It’s obvious neither Hanks nor Spielberg wanted to create a potentially unlikeable character. Instead they render Bradlee as a workaholic, whose brusque behaviour is acceptable because he Gets Things Done, Believes In His Job and is on the right side of history.
Huffing and puffing to his staff about reporting rather than repeating news, Bradlee gets a chance to turn his rag into a major player when The Pentagon Papers comes into the his possession. Complicating things for Graham is her personal relationship with McNamara, and the possibility of financial repercussions, including potentially adverse effects the decision to publish might have on affiliated networks.
In The Post, Hanks barely breaks a sweat.
Similar terrain was explored much better in Michael Mann’s 1999 drama The Insider, which didn’t sideline the whistleblower nor shy away from discussion of corporate influence in the media. As the righteous producer, Al Pacino nearly popped a vein in dogged pursuit of journalist ideals and expression of his hatred of ‘the system’; in The Post, Hanks barely breaks a sweat. More recently, the excellent Spotlight acknowledged great investigative journalism as a collaborative effort – the sweat and blood of hacks, pencil-pushers, scriveners – instead of spinning it, as Spielberg does, as means to congratulate players at the top of the pyramid.
The veteran director is no stranger to stories about powerful people and institutions, nor to tales about underdogs. Here he attempts to combine both. The balance doesn’t sit right and the most exciting elements of The Post remain off-screen. Predictably, given the Spielberg-sized budget, the film has measured surface and technical values, though there is little flair in Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and its texture feels cold and clinical.
Rather than this story becoming relevant anew in the era of Donald Trump, as some commentators have suggested, the opposite is true. The idea that a major news organisation would invest huge amounts of time, with a large number of highly talented and experienced journalists, on a single story that sends tremors through the corridors of power – that feels rather quaint now. Trump would decry The Post’s exposé, sight-unseen, as fake news. And his supporters would either believe him, or not care.
WANT TO READ MORE FILM REVIEWS? HELP US FUND MORE ARTS JOURNALISM BY CLICKING HERE