Steven Spielberg’s excellent Pentagon Papers exposé thriller comes straight from the facts. If the project wasn’t begun in 2014 we’d think it was a direct response to today’s attacks on the news media. We’ll take it as that anyway. It’s a fine performing showcase for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and the direction creates exciting drama without a single car chase, assassination attempt or superhero.
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital
2017 / Color /1:85 widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date April 17, 2018 / 34.99
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminsky
Film Editors: Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar
Original Music: John Williams
Written by Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Imagine that — a new movie with almost no characters under thirty years of age.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post ends where Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) begins, at the Watergate break-in. The 1976 movie was a first in political filmmaking — the U.S. had done its best to ignore political pictures from France and Italy (The Battle of Algiers 1966, “Z”, 1969) but President’s Men advocated a single political point of view on a political upheaval just a couple of years after the fact. The Post is another paean to American journalism (my favorite, Sam Fuller’s Park Row, 1952) but not quite as brave as the Pakula film . . . the ‘courage meter’ doesn’t register much when the controversial events being examined are almost half a century in the past. The Post is actually a more refined version of more modern ‘lets explain history’ political pictures, such as Lions for Lambs and Charlie Wilson’s War (both 2007). No, The Post compares the political debacle of the Nixon years to the present debacle, defending what journalism still remains in America against charges of ‘fake news.’ The idea is simply to establish that The Press is the only check we have against governmental lies. The Post uses the old formula of the newspaper melodrama to tell a true story of Ethics versus Expedience.
Clearly a creation of liberal Hollywood (Spielberg + Hanks + Streep), The Post does credit to the notion of liberalism. There isn’t an ounce of elitist fat in the concept. The heroes are Washington insiders but also decent idealists that take journalism seriously. They risk their reputations and livelihoods to defend the country against an abuse of power.
It’s the story of The Pentagon Papers, which is still a contentious issue. In 1971 The Washington Post considers itself a local newspaper. Its editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) notes that the ace reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) of The New York Times has been quiet for a long time, and intuits that he must be working on something big. Through various underground channels it is determined that someone is getting ready to leak an enormous Pentagon study documenting twenty years of military/White House deceit about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) thinks he might trace the story on his own, and hits the jackpot when he discovers that the source is an ex- Rand Corporation analyst, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). Ellsberg has copied the massive Top Secret document, and is hiding out to avoid what might be a long prison sentence. The Times gets their initial revelation articles out first, only to be slammed with a Federal cease and desist order.
Ben Bradlee sees the publishing of the Pentagon Papers as a clear necessity, even though it means going against the U.S. Justice System under Richard Nixon, who wants any newspaper that prints the Papers prosecuted. But the Post’s legal and business advisors are adamant that defying the White House would be the end of the paper. Publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) inherited the paper when her husband died, and normally takes the advice of her Board of Directors. The ailing paper has just gone public with a stock offering that requires that nothing ‘catastrophic’ occur for the next week, and a contempt of court charge would certainly qualify. The experts predict the demise of the paper if Graham defies the order, and Bradlee predicts the end of the paper if it doesn’t expose the lies that are the basis of the very unpopular Vietnam bloodbath.
In the The Post Steven Spielberg applies his considerable talents to a kind of film he usually avoids, one that presses a political issue not likely to win near-unanimous approval. Stanley Kramer had a knack for standing up bravely for issues that were already settled, at least among the liberal majority that constituted his target audience. Most of us didn’t know the full details of Watergate, and the same certainly applies to The Pentagon Papers. The situation today is that the majority of Americans haven’t a clear idea what Nixon was for or against.
The Post is an exemplary production all the way. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight) is smartly constructed to communicate a complicated narrative with maximum clarity. The achievement is impressive, as the story of the breaking of the Pentagon Papers has no ‘action’ or real little physical conflict. Spielberg would normally not touch a story that couldn’t be goosed every sixty seconds with some fanciful bit of business. The main players here engage in a lot of talking at meetings, in restaurants and at Mrs. Graham’s parties. The conflict is all situational: Graham facing off against her business advisor and Board members, and sparring with her editor Bradlee, with whom she earlier differed only on petty matters. The Post’s attitude toward kowtowing to Nixon is well established with Bradlee’s refusal to cover Tricia Nixon’s ‘royal’ wedding, because Nixon has banned the paper’s chosen reporter.
Topping the list of things that The Post does well is its handling of Mrs. Graham’s personal friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who commissioned the Pentagon Vietnam report ‘for posterity.’ The former Defense Secretary fully believes that the government has a right to maintain a secret military- industrial- political conspiracy of lies. The script makes Graham and her white knight Bradlee into defenders of America, even as they compete against other defenders of America over at the Times.
The big obstacle in pictures of this kind is to write dialogue that isn’t all Lame Exposition (LE). All one has to do is turn on any TV show to see a show’s characters standing around rattling off supposedly hip dialogue that’s actually a list of exposition bullet points to tell the audience what’s going on, mainly so as to not waste time showing what’s going on. It’s really a sort of ‘shared narration.’ The worst kind of LE is SD, or Submarine Dialogue. That’s when the sailors manning a submarine explain ‘submarine stuff’ to each other that should obviously be an unspoken part of their daily work: “If we don’t blow the ballast tanks we won’t be able to surface” …”6,000 feet is far below our operating depth, sir!” The Post by necessity has to do a lot of explaining of how a newspaper works, and Hannah and Singer’s script never goes into the LE sand trap. (submarine + golf metaphors mix well.)
The gab never gets so thick that the important points are dulled. Hanks has us 100% on his side when Bradlee voices his opinion of the Justice Department’s gag order on the Times: never before in the history of the Republic has the White House forbidden a newspaper from publishing something. Spielberg doesn’t hype most of the big moments, overstating emotions so much that he comes off as insecure about his storytelling, as happens too much at the end of Schindler’s List. When Streep’s Kay Graham makes her final decision about whether or not to publish, she isn’t compared to Washington crossing the Delaware, or more germaine to Spielberg, Jimmy Stewart throwing a Capracorn tiz-fit on the floor of the Senate. It’s late, she’s tired, and she’s sick of lectures from men in suits. She gives her instructions and says goodnight.
Spielberg does overstep lightly in one sequence, the part of the movie in which Bradlee and his cohorts receive a box with a photocopy of the first 2/3rds or so of the Pentagon Papers. The director has made his camera sweep through the editorial offices in honored The Front Page style, but now he falls back on reliable ‘organized chaos’ mode. Ten adult professionals are supposed to be composing initial articles about the secret Pentagon report, but instead the camera does handheld loop-the-loops around the room while the gathered newsmen read bits of text, exclaim zingers like “They knew they were Lying!” all the while scattering the uncollated pages onto the floor. They open the box of photocopies as if it were the Ark of the Covenant, and then toss the precious Word of God left and right in a communal journalist orgasm. It’s like a cram session in The Paper Chase, with Howard Hawks asides breaking in for comic relief: ‘Why not put vodka in the lemonade?’ I almost expected Bob Balaban to roll a large globe into the room, wailing “Before my job was to speak French, I was a cartographer.” It’s the only scene in the movie that brought back the old Spielberg overstatement. Yes, it’s a legit use of heightened reality to express the importance of the moment. Spielberg wants a wide audience, and believes that every Big Moment should be pounded in with his biggest Big Moment Mallet.
Putting together the Post’s initial articles apparently happens automatically, without much coordinated thought about what to say. A few hours later, historical-quality journalism pops out of the typewriters to be driven over to compositing.
I don’t even consider this a complaint. Spielberg and his writers do a fine job exciting the audience, when nothing more exciting than talk is happening. We get meetings, phone conversations, and the receiving of messages and telegrams. It doesn’t have the cloak ‘n’ dagger snooping and, sneaky reporter tricks of All the President’s Men. Instead of falsifying history by injecting action, Spielberg uses his directing skill to make the little stuff … arrivals, departures … seem important.
I especially liked the red herring lawyer character, the nasty suit determined to force Bradlee and Graham to shut down the reporting of the biggest story of the year. He comes off as an evil corporate Matt Damon. The great twist is that this same attorney, after Graham takes her stand, makes a great verbal argument in the defense of journalistic freedom.
There’s no subliminal romance between Streep and Hanks, as implied in the old Bogart and Ethel Barrymore newspaper favorite Deadline – U.S.A.. These favorite actors do make us forget that they’re playing refined Washington elites. We see no sign that Graham and McNamara are permanently splitsville, in terms of friendship. The fine docu The Fog of War gave McNamara the equivalent of a confession booth to atone for his sins . . . for posterity. But the millions that wouldn’t sit through a ‘leftist’ docu might watch The Post. Kay Graham tells McNamara off good because the audience can’t. When McNamara talks about Nixon’s crooks and knaves having a long reach, we of course think of the present nest of vipers in power.
The Post has terrific casting all around. Everybody looks new and fresh, especially those with the most screen time — Bob Odenkirk, etc. As Daniel Ellsberg, Matthew Rhys is suitably conflicted — leaking the papers is a case of one idealistic imperative winning out over another idealistic imperative. One of the big surprises of the picture is recognizing Michael Stuhlbarg, whose Times lawyer looks nothing like his Soviet spy in The Shape of Water.
Tom Hanks’ great makeup and hair helps him do nice things with his character. Ben Bradlee comes off looking like a morph between Hanks and the old actor Robert Emhardt — slightly phlegmatic, stuffy. I hear a lot of grousing that Meryl Streep is overrated, but I still respond to her screen presence — she even made Mamma Mia! watchable (once). Instead of an iron lady, her lady publisher is aware of her emotionalism and more than a little ditzy . . . yet of course has a core of True Grit. Yes, the screenwriters do get to make a feminist statement about Mrs. Graham’s valiant resistance against the onslaught of the Old Boy’s Club. She’s just as convincing when trying to exert some influence in the paper, and running up against the brick wall of Ben Bradlee’s Journalism 101 wisdoms:
“The only way to assert the right to publish, is to publish.”
“If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can print and cannot print, then the Washington Post has already ceased to exist.”
When the decision to go is given, we get the big ‘roll the presses’ scene that’s been in every newspaper movie since time began. Spielberg gets to recreate the tracking shots of people running the copy through editorial and typesetting, to the turning of the giant presses and the end product coming off the line. It’s the cornerstone of American democracy, even the yellow press celebrated by Sam Fuller in Park Row. Reminding Americans of this is important.
Spielberg makes his engaging picture mostly from directorial will. We can almost see him explaining why the movie will work — like Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, it’s all in the presentation. If this year had given us the usual Oscars season crowded with duds, The Post would have been a respectable Best Picture choice.
20th Fox’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital of The Post is the expected flawless encoding of a production shot on 3-perf pulldown 35mm film. Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski makes the film’s visual aspect transparent — we forget about technical concerns and spend our two hours absorbing a fascinating story.
The extras are a quintet of featurettes ranging from seven to 25 minutes in duration. They’re half adulation of Spielberg and company and half welcome information and insight about the film and the history behind it. Although the film was put together very quickly, it was initiated in 2014, so it only feels like a direct response to Trump’s ‘fake news’ slander against legit journalism. When we hear Nixon on the phone asking how he can punish leakers, the voice we hear is Nixon’s own, from the White House Tapes. I was also surprised to see all that old-school printing equipment, including a linotype machine, and wondered if it was a digital mock-up. Nope, the featurettes show that the ancient machines still exist.
Without getting pushy, Spielberg reveals that yes, Trump and ‘fake news’ were on his mind when filming. The important thing to this viewer is that someone influential is defending the role of journalism. This is important, when reporters all over the world are being shot and tortured.
It needs to be remembered that neither Ellsberg nor Woodward and Bernstein saved the world. Publishing the inconvenient truth in the Pentagon Papers did not stop the war. In 1975’s Three Days of the Condor Robert Redford’s leaker delivers his world-shaking secrets to the New York Times, but first he has to listen to a lecture from a cynical government spook (Cliff Robertson). The selfish and cynical public is so stupid, we’re told, that they don’t care what crimes the government commits, as long as they get their cheap oil and color TV.
But the spirit is still there. I try not to blab too many name-dropping stories, but this one from 1973 is too memorable. As a lowly usher at the now-demolished National Theater in Westwood, I often didn’t recognize celebrities that came in. But I knew what Mike Nichols looked like. He took a break with two other gentlemen in the lobby behind my post at the door. Nichols and somebody else seemed to be trying to cheer up the third guy, and when I asked, ‘Are you Mike Nichols?’ I think he used me to help make that happen. Nichols responded with a friendly handshake, and said, ‘Yes, and this is Buck Henry, and this is Daniel Ellsberg.’ I immediately asked to shake the man’s hand; thank God I knew who he was. ‘I think you did something important Mr. Ellsberg. I’m very proud to shake your hand.’ I got a big smile in return. Shaking his hand felt like major good luck had been transmitted to me.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital rates:
Supplements: Featurettes: Layout: Catherine Graham, Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post; Editorial: the cast and characters; The Style Section: re-creating an era; Stop the Presses: filming the post.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson