Remember The Pentagon Papers?
If you’re not a student of history, you may not, since a much bigger story broke right after their release to the public, the Watergate burglary. But if you see THE POST (2017), Steven Spielberg’s latest movie about this U.S. government bombshell and subsequent court battle which nearly put a dagger in the heart of freedom of the press, you might—
—still not remember it.
Spielberg’s latest film, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, in spite of its impressive look, strong performances, and timely subject matter, somehow just doesn’t resonate all that well.
It’s 1971, and The New York Times has just published an explosive article revealing the U.S. government— going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration— had known the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and yet they proceeded anyway, lying to the American public that the war effort was going well. When the Nixon administration orders the Times to cease publication of these articles, pending criminal charges, the paper concedes.
Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees this as a chance to save his newspaper, which is facing financial hardship and lack of readership, in spite of the efforts of its publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). Bradlee sends his reporters in search of a copy of the source document, the Pentagon Papers, and when they subsequently find it, Bradlee is ready to print as much of the controversial information as possible, but members of the paper’s board hesititate, knowing that the government could take legal action and shut them down.
Bradlee sees this as a battle for freedom of the press, claiming that it is the job of the press to keep the government honest, because if they can’t do it, who will? And when Kay bucks the board and backs Ben, the battle lines are drawn.
The story told in THE POST is a good one, and it’s timely, since here in 2018 the press is sparring with the Trump administration, and yet, strangely, the film as a whole did not hold my interest.
The best character in the film is editor Ben Bradlee, and Tom Hanks nails the role in the film’s strongest performance. His fight for freedom of the press is the most compelling part of the story and really should be the centerpiece of the film, but it’s not. When he sends his reporters out to find the Pentagon Papers, these scenes should have made for compelling cinema, but they don’t. Compared to another recent newspaper movie, SPOTLIGHT (2015) which brought its audience in close to the plight of its journalists, THE POST fails to capture that feeling of what it’s like being a newspaper reporter. The storytelling here is simply not as gritty as it needs to be.
Meryl Streep, in spite of an impressive performance as Kay Graham, doesn’t fare as well as Tom Hanks. Her story of Kay fighting to gain respect among men is also timely and yet her scenes are never as powerful or as memorable as they could have been. They all come off as rather passive and quiet. I expected her scenes to be rousing and inspirational but surprisingly they were not.
The fault here is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. With the exception of Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, the rest of the characters are not that memorable or fleshed out. Nor is the dialogue all that noteworthy. Hannah and Singer go through the motions telling the story, but this one never reached out and grabbed me. The biggest knock for me was, in spite of this being based on a true story, the characters just didn’t seem all that real.
And Spielberg’s direction didn’t help either. The film looks great, as everything about 1971 looks authentic. But the pacing here was dreadfully slow, and I just didn’t feel the suspense, even during the film’s climactic moment where everyone at the paper waits to hear the Supreme Court decision which will decide their fate.
I enjoyed Spielberg’s previous movie, BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) much more.
In addition to Hanks and Streep, THE POST also features a fine supporting cast. Bob Odenkirk is very good as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, in a role that is unfortunately under written. Tracy Letts fares even better as Post chairman of the board Fritz Beebe. Letts is an excellent actor who we just saw in a completely different yet equally impressive role as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD (2017). He was also in THE BIG SHORT (2015).
Bruce Greenwood has some fine moments as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, as does Bradley Whitford as Post board member Arthur Parsons.
And John Williams, at age 85, provides yet another music score, this following upon the heels of his score for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017). Pretty awesome!
But awesome is something THE POST is not. Overall, I was disappointed with THE POST. I found it slow and only mildly intriguing, which for a story of this magnitude, should not have been the case. The characters, in spite of being based on real people, never really came to life, and the story was told in a rather low-key and passive way that never really grabbed me.
It also didn’t really work as “newspaper movie” as I hardly got the feel of what it was like to work as a reporter at The Washington Post during this time. As a result, the entire movie lacked the edge it should have had.
In spite of its impressive look and quality acting, THE POST is simply a mild retelling of an important moment in our nation’s history.
No front page headlines here.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.