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The Post film review: history rewritten for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks to grandstand

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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.

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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.

READ HELEN RAZER ON WHAT JULIAN ASSANGE AND THE POST’S KATHERINE GRAHAM HAVE IN COMMON HERE

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32 responses to “The Post film review: history rewritten for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks to grandstand

  1. I just saw the movie and felt the same lack of enthusiasm. It just did not work for me on any level. The military industrial complex piece is missing which Eisenhower warned us about but apparently could not rein in. The money and corporate greed is always a character in every political story and either it is overdone or completely left out. In this case, we learned very little about the true back story. Studying the characters of Bradlee and Katherine Graham was just not enlightening.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet but your claim that the film’s chief flaw is its undue emphasis on the two main players may not stack up with the historical facts. The New York Times got the Pentagon Papers first and began publishing excerpts but was then restrained by a federal court injunction. The Washington Post wasn’t subject to that injunction and decided to go ahead and publish. A decision like that could only be taken by those at the highest level, not by the “hacks, pencil-pushers and scriveners”. I can imagine Spielberg may have over-egged his hero worship of the chief protagonists, but he may not be historically wrong.

    1. As opposed to the manufactured spy in the movie? That never happened. The Washington Post were not the primary driver of the Pentagon papers. It was the New York Times. After the injunction, Ellsberg began sending copies other newspapers (including the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Boston Globe), one after another as each one received injunction. The Post was a bit player. Nothing more.

  3. I enjoyed the performances of Streep and Hanks and thought the set design and detailed look of the film was impressive. I enjoyed the film much more than Luke Buckmaster although I can underatand where he is coming from. However, in saying that, I disagree in his interpretation
    The focus of the film was on the wealthy owner of the Post and the ruthless editor. ..and that’s ok. The whistleblower was not ignored, he was jist not the focus of this film.

  4. Great movie.
    Panned by reviewers, Post tells the story of Meryl Streep’s character, Kay Graham, owner of the Washington Post newspaper, as she and her company fight to survive and succeed when they meet the challenge by rising up to defend Freedom of the Press from a President willing to mis-use Tools of State to silence personal and political critics. The movie highlights the times as they were. Women and Kay herself had not yet accepted women to be equal or leaders in their own right. Movie critics took issue with this suggesting producers minimized the role of one individual who leaked the papers and who they felt should be the hero of the story, but I think this movie accomplished what it needed to do, depicting Nixon for the truly awful man and aberrant President he was and THAT, not some hero held up on a pedestal, is the center of this story, while adding another layer to American consciousness that happens to be timely. Neither Nixon nor Chump should occupy that office as neither respect the American experience, the Constitution or common decency.
    #ImpeachNow
    #MeToo

    1. Boring movie.
      If you actually look at the facts, the real life person Meryl Streep was representing actually didn’t care about the consequences of publishing until the last minute. By her own admission, she just assumed they were going to publish it the whole time up until the final phone call two hours before publishing where her lawyers confronted her. And Nixon wasn’t actually a villain in this story. Again, if you were to fat-check, you’d know that Nixon actually only used the law to hold back the papers because they would ruin LBJ and JFK’s reputation as good men. And these guys were technically his opposition, so it’s not like he had any sort of stake in any of it. His administration had nothing to do with the papers since the study ended before he took office. He did it out of a strange sense of respect and honor and to make him the villain in all of this is just shameful. Also, this is only the historic side of things. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks clearly weren’t even trying in this movie except for a grand total of five scenes. And it is true that out of everyone who was needed in order to contribute to the publication, both in the film and in real life, Meryl Streep’s character did the absolute least. A man had to sneak files out of a government building over the course of three months and reprint them all without anyone noticing. Another man had togo number by number trying to find this man, travel to a different state to carry three boxes of confidential government files with a bad back all the way back to Washington where he worked with a team to organize the documents and write the articles. Then that had to be sent physically since computer messaging didn’t exist to the actual office where it then needed to be physically changed into newspaper font and style. And then one woman had to say “Oh, go ahead.” It’s clear where most of the effort came from. Steven Spielberg doesn’t put any shred of heart into the movie and the entire thing feels like a 3/5 at best. For your Trump bit, he hasn’t done anything warranting arrest and he has the ability to say whatever he wants due to the 1st amendment. And for the MeToo bit, why? There’s no sexual harassment in the movie. Meryl Streep’s character faces minor scrutiny in the movie, but all the guys still suck up to her faster than your insults to Trump can come down. Any time her lack of ability is brought up is behind her back and the only time she’s ever talked over is when she voluntarily speaks at a small volume. You can’t just post that wherever you want and expect to be complimented. Some people actually need to be heard and aren’t just some random girl who had two guys look at her for three seconds.

      1. Boring reply and pointless. It’s a movie. Got it. Written by script writers. They’ll write the script to enhance the drama. I’ve seen it: the first half was slow but picked up its pace in the second half. The reviews I’ve read give it 3 to 4 out of 5.

  5. This is a film about devastating war and lying US presidents. It is about a corrupted democracy that lies for decades and sends its youth to slaughter and be slaughtered. It is about the importance of a responsible 4th estate. It is a scenario much like the Edward Snowden documents and the Wikileaks publishings; revelations of the lies of the US Government in waging war and its bullying foreign policy. There are leaker heroes and brave journalists in all these stories.

    It is neatly framed by focussing on the characters of the editor and owner of the Washington Post which was existentially challenged by the incredible events surrounding the Pentagon Papers. It is an entertaining film with two highly credentialled actors delivering extrememely well. It is an important story that reminds us that Australia’s lock-step foreign policy is a travesty of morality and democracy.

  6. When a movies states that a film is “based on a true story”, it is telling you that this film has a license to SAY OR DO WHATEVER THEY WANT FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT. If you are looking to Movies for historical accuracy, and you’ve lived through or studied the REAL STORY in advance, you will be disappointed as you should be. If on the other hand you like to be entertained, and you understand Hollywood’s goal is to entertain its audience, and make lots of money to boot, then go and enjoy the film. It is NOT a documentary!
    Why anyone goes to the movies these days to be informed is beyond this writer’s comprehension.

    1. That is precisely right. Well said. I was engrossed in this very good film and the story it weaves. I accept this reviewer didn’t like it, but I did. Meryl Streep is such a superb actress – she nails any historical piece. He work as Julia Child was just incredible in Julie and Julia as wel. A pleasure to see her nail this role too. I’m not distracted by creative licence if the result is this good to watch. I went straight to “All the President’s Men” after watching “The Post” just to keep the monent going. I bother to watch maybe 5 films a year, carefully selecting them. I did not regret this one.

  7. I disagree with much of what has been written both by Buckmaster and some of the commenters regarding this film. I do think it paid sufficient tribute to Ellsberg, and the historical aspects of the,publication of the Pentagon Papers, while weaving in a story about a reluctant newspaper owner, belittled by the father who gave the paper to his son in law and sneered at by most of the men she had to deal with. Ben Bradlee’s Wife has a short but telling monologue about Kay Graham’s “bravery”. No amount of whitewashing of Nixon can cover the fact that, whatever his motives, he was a vindictive bastard, quite happy to ride roughshod over the first amendment rights of newspapers and, thus, Americans. The basic story of this film is a reminder to generations which don’t know about this sad element of America’s, and Australia’s history. And if you don’t see the relevance to the US today I suggest a closer look.

    1. Oh. Jesus. Please.
      Really? Kay Graham was a friend and fan of Kissinger, opposed to strikes by her workers and a person most impressive for allowing an IPO. Just because She’s a Woman does not mean that Luke is a sexist for seeing her story as one dreadfully overblown. It’s a terrible film, and props to the reviewer for seeing it as empty US self-congratulation.

      1. It was a big deal, a HUGE deal, at the time and nothing about it is empty US self-congratulation… it’s a story of any government against any media censorship. Not exclusively American. Though it seems to be threatened exactly there once more these days by Trump.

      2. Yes, too true. A sad overblown Hollywood rendition, over acted by Hollywood elite. Maybe the 40% of the US who are ‘deplorables’ need to be spoon fed.

      3. Thankyou! Yes, it was a terrible film. Thank God somebody else can see that. The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Drab. The subject matter of the film – the idea – had potential. Extremely disappointing.

    2. What happened to responding what is written, rather than what fits one’s ideological argument. This review doesn’t say ” recalibrating history to suit the presence of his actors – Meryl Streep .”
      This review says ” recalibrating history to suit the presence of his marquee actors – Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks .”

      Then Buckmaster’s criticism goes on to say “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” and criticises the film saying that 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.”

      Sexist? Hardly.

    1. So do I John. But that quote is from a reader’s comment (in the US) and that’s the way it’s spelt there. Cheers, Ray Gill

  8. I thought this was a turgid drab load of crap. The film colouration trying to make it of the period made it even more dreary to watch. There’s not one character that my younger period self would have noticed in the world … so uncool yuk this is a piece of shit

  9. A watchable film but one has to remember it is not a documentary Shed light on an episode most of us did not know about or had forgotten. Main message for me was the real danger of censorship by government. And looking at our own OpShop Gate in Canberra and the reaction of government to it, it is a very timely warning that we must not let the likes of Dutton and the other alt-cons further stifle and muzzle our press in the new upcoming legislation.

  10. Well thank goodness all men don’t have to be entirely virtuous Marxists to be the subject of a movie. A large part of the movie shows you how entrenched Mrs Graham is in the political elite, & the expectations from all directions that she obey her father, then her husband once she married. To you know, suggest it was very brave to risk being shunned by every single person she knew & going against what all those powerful men want her to do. We’re also shown how Mrs Graham was subjected to unrelenting derogatory comments & treatment for the sole reason that she was female. If you weren’t a woman alive back in those days perhaps you can’t understand what that was like because we have come a long way baby. Her role has been & continues to be downplayed for that very reason & now an attempt to redress the balance is wrong because she had bad attitudes to workers? Isn’t that like those bad young feminists wanting to take down sexist paintings that are presented in galleries without any context? She supported conservative political positions most of the time? If you can’t see why that was after that movie, you weren’t paying attention. Perhaps that’s why not doing that for once was a remarkable choice? Of course if we’d been her, all of us would’ve behaved much better, right?

  11. I went to see it with a friend who doesn’t study film like I do. After it was over she turned to me and just said “Is that is? Because that was shite.”
    She detested it and not because of some political or social reason. She hated it because it’s kind of a shit movie. The acting is sluggish and slow and as if no one can really be arsed to be there. Kay Graham’s house is so badly put together it’s clearly a set on a sound stage and all the big poignant moments are so lazily written, directed and acted that there is zero tension throughout the whole movie.
    This could’ve been a brilliant and timely piece but it’s all just sort of a bit rubbish. Sorely disappointed in everyone involved apart from the guys who edited the trailer. They did a really good job.

    1. Your friend must have fallen asleep during the first part which was very slow but picked up in the last hour (don’t know what your friend would have thought of Fonda’s “Twelve Angry Men”!). I thought it was a good film, though typical Spielberg. The last few minutes were notable Graham and Bradlee realising that they had given a free pass to those past presidents because they were of their ilk, so to speak; noting that had they not then they wouldn’t have been granted the amount of access to the government had they been more diligent as they should have been.
      I don’t think your friend would know a quality movie if it hit her in the face.

  12. This movie was drab unwatchable garbage – so pat – if Streep wins an Oscar for this you’ll know that their system is a corrupt joke.

  13. This movie seemed rushed to be released when there is similar political turmoil and issues with journalists and the White House. When Hanks and Streep were together it felt like, “We’re two cinematic giants that have never had the chance to act together and her we go! We’re acting and aren’t we magnificent!” Don’t get me wrong. I usually love the two but they were the weakest of the ensemble cast. Intriguing subject but like the reviewer suggests, the real story was Ellsberg. Gave it a 5 out of 10.

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