' ' Cinema Romantico: The Post

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Post

“The Post” begins with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) on the ground in Vietnam listening to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) lament the war’s hopelessness in private only to espouse platitudinous positivity to the press. Determining that America itself is on a need to know basis and needs to know, Ellsberg pilfers top secret documents proving the US Government already knows the war cannot be won and keeps fighting anyway. Though I suspect director Steven Spielberg wants to begin in Vietnam to remind us of what’s at stake, it nevertheless gets a little lost anyway in what follows, with occasional on the nose variations of this being The Right Thing To Do overridden by the film’s emphasis on journalistic integrity, which, I suspect, is why the movie changed its title midway through production from “The Papers” to “The Post.”

In documenting Ellsberg’s thievery, however, much of the film’s prospective journalistic suspense is simultaneously eliminated. The reporters here don’t really hit the pavement to find the scoop; the scoop comes to them. No, the principal drama lies in whether or not The Post will defy the government by publishing The Pentagon Papers, a decision left not to editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) but to The Post’s publisher and “The Post’s” emergent heroine, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Not that Bradlee doesn’t have opinions, he very much does, and some of the best sequences in “The Post” simply let Streep and Hanks exist, particularly their characters’ first encounter over breakfast, Spielberg’s camera half-rounding the table and then mostly staying still to watch them interact. The conversation, discussing the direction of the paper, is a nicely written series of verbal counterattacks, though the acting rubber these two titans joyfully burn in one another’s company is the real point, and that joy (for actors and viewers alike) is epitomized in how the scene ends with Streep laughing so hard she almost goes over in the back of her chair.

Their discussion partly involves The Post’s local-only angle which Bradlee seeks to subvert, and watching him grouse about being beaten for scoops by the vaunted New York Times in regards to The Pentagon Papers is a sly reminder how so often journalistic good deeds are born of more selfish interests. But when Tricky Dick decides to take the Times to court over their publishing of Ellsberg’s top secret information, the leaker brings his documents to The Post. Alas, to publish could potentially cripple the paper at the very moment it is about to go public, a meeting of issues that sort of suggests Humphrey Bogart’s “Deadline U.S.A.” Of course, he was a man in a man’s world, with a mostly silent wife waiting on the sideline to support him, while Katharine is in charge because her husband died, leaving her alone in a sea of men that vacillate between being respectful and patronizing, like Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), who upon questioning his publisher’s resolve is met with a “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness” which Streep maximizes for cutting condescension.

This position is evoked not just in Katharine’s plight but in Bradlee’s wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson). If at first you might wonder why a heavy-hitter like Paulson is being relegated to The Supportive Spouse role, a la Amy Ryan in Spielberg’s own “Bridge of Spies”, lingering in the shadows of doorways to encourage her husband, her character is afforded one scorching mid-movie monologue in which she illuminates for her semi-oblivious spouse the significance of Katharine’s mettle, which Paulson delivers with quiet authority as Hanks smartly has his character just stand there and take it.

If “The Post” is blatant in its Right to Publish messaging, really only hearing the government’s case in a one-on-one between Katharine and a craven McNamara, there becomes something inexorably powerful both in Katharine having to navigate a mostly male dominion but also the dominion of D.C. movers and shakers. In this, Bradlee becomes something like Katharine’s conscious, seen most acutely than a shot when he approaches her at a birthday party to sort of call her integrity on the carpet, as he leaves, we see him walking away from some vantage point amidst a crowded room of political moguls, while Katharine is left marooned between the two. The moment is better evocation of these ideas, frankly, than the movie’s more barefaced reminder that the press is meant to “serve the governed, not the governors”, which is a Supreme Court dictum, yes, and also a reminder why Supreme Court Justices are not enlisted to write movie dialogue.

The implementation of that real life line will no doubt lead to plaudits of timeliness, how “The Post” is here to remind us why freedom of the press is so important when it is so often under fire in present-day America. Perhaps that drove Spielberg to make this movie, but pre-production concerns stand apart from aesthetics, like the climactic scene when Katharine must decide whether to sign off on publishing The Papers as she, Bradlee and everyone else communicate by a variety of phones. If it sounds static, it is shot, with a variety of zoom ins and zoom outs from various angles, in the manner of an action scene, bringing home the inherent drama with great flair. And Streep plays this sequence with great flair herself, drawing out these moments with an electrically quivering anxiety. And when she declares “Let’s publish”, it becomes less about anything connected to the present than something extemporaneously rising up from within.

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