Monday, January 29, 2018

Steven Spielberg, part XXXVII: All the controlling shareholder's men


Gasp!  Will the Washington Post publish the Pentagon Papers in the face of hostile governmental action?  I can't wait to find out!  (So, perhaps you can see that it's at least somewhat despite itself that The Post winds up being the best true story Spielberg's put to film in over a decade.)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
With Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), Meryl Streep (Kay Graham), and others, many, many, many others, sheesh

Spoiler alert: they saved democracy?

There's a lot of nice things you can say about The Post, but I'll start with the one I don't think anyone else has mentioned: it is the first time since The Sugarland freaking Express all the way back in 1974 that Steven Spielberg, in his guise as the Chronicler of Lightly-Fictionalized Historical Events, has managed to get through any of his true stories in less than two hours.  The Post just barely makes it—with four minutes to spare—but surely that's one of the most pleasantly surprising things about this late-career entry into the filmmaker's canon.  It fits in rather wonderfully with the incredible laser-focus of the piece, too—incredible for Spielberg, anyway (because Jesus, did you see Bridge of Spies?)—which limits itself almost exclusively to taking on one of the roughest weeks for the First Amendment in American history. Clearly, there's still much that could be cut, if you wanted to cut it, starting with, well, starting with the start, since the first five minutes of The Post are a curious inclusion indeed, as they exist for no obvious reason other than to remind the audience that the Vietnam War spanned many years, and took place (are you taking notes?) in Vietnam.

It's curiouser still, since either the worst thing, or the best thing, about The Post is that it practically assumes you were a living, attentive adult human being during the Nixon Years—that is to say, of course it's a movie for old people, but not just in that Oscarbaity kind of way that demands that all such movies are to be for old people.  Rather, it's that people who are in their late sixties or older will, quite literally, be able to follow the narrative better.  The Post expects you to know the story already, which is fair enough, but not just in its broadest strokes—birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again, and so forth—but in pretty damned fine detail, like the names, functions, and even the personal backstories of the newsroom staff at the then-local paper that would soon help bring that president down.  In this respect, it's only following in the venerable tradition of the movie it's desperately proud to serve as a prequel to, All The President's Men—quite specifically, in fact, whether you want it to or not, though I for one am charmed by it—but the difference between The Post and All The President's Men is that All The President's Men was made in pretty much real time, whereas The Post was made (checks watch) fifty fucking years later.

But if The Post is confusing, it's confusing in the most invigorating and intoxicating way it could be, aided immeasurably by a sprawling all-star cast that, all-star status aside, have little hope of standing out in opposition to the two central figures of the story, the Washington Post's executive editor Ben Bradlee, who wants to publish the Pentagon Papers in spite of the likely legal consequences, and the Washington Post's heiress-owner Katherine Graham, who is far more conflicted on the matter.

At least, they don't have much hope of standing out when Bradlee and Graham are played by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, especially not when the two great actors are as fully on their game as they are right here.  In scrupulous fairness, Hanks is really, for the most part, "only" doing a Hanks: he puts on a silly gruff voice that involves some kind of totally unidentifiable accent, and then barks at people in that Hanksy way that never lets you forget that he's gruff but loveable.  But this is the reason why Hanks is a movie star; it's also the reason why Hanks represents astonishingly perfect casting, even in the context of a Spielberg movie about newspapers, where Hanks was probably getting into character before anybody else, possibly including Spielberg, even knew a movie was getting made in the first place.  (And it's not like he has nothing to do but be an authority figure.  One of the most fascinating little things in the movie is the way that Hanks plays the sense of betrayal ribboned with self-loathing that Bradlee endures, when Graham forces him, for the first time, to come to terms with the fact that he's bent the knee to presidents before, almost without even realizing that he did, not merely for access but—as you can plainly see on Hanks' face—the attention and validation of being "friends" with the kings of America, too.)

Streep, though, gets an even meatier part—and dines fastidiously upon it, using her face and voice with intense and captivating precision as the new owner of the Post, who's already finding her position precarious, in part because she's terribly inexperienced, in part because the Post is financially unstable and needs to go public in order to get its hands on liquid capital, but mostly because it's 1972 and she's a woman.  Streep has the good sense to recoil against the responsibility on Graham's behalf—running a paper is neither exactly what she wanted, nor ever expected—and she evokes a stunningly internalized sexism, which she tries her best to feel her way around in order to be the leader she needs to be, but can only completely vanquish for brief, crystalline moments of clarity, the best of which—even if, on paper, it's nothing but a simple phone conversation—is aided by the strongest, tensest bout of pure cinema that Spielberg and veteran editor Michael Kahn (along with new editor Sarah Broshar) have brought to bear upon one of their histories since Munich itself.  That it can be this thrilling, when it is such a foregone conclusion, can only yield one response: the master's back.

And I have one inkling why.  Spielberg and company cranked their flick out like they were responding to a wartime propaganda need—The Post was started and finished all in the time that Ready Player One was rendering on an ILM computer—and maybe that's exactly the need they felt they were responding to, for The Post is nothing if it isn't disarmingly passionate about its material.

Yet Spielberg's direction, and Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's script, scrape up a tiny bit of restraint, despite The Post's self-conscious and loudly-announced intention to be a comforting hand on the shoulder of the free press in these trying times; somehow, it really does manage to be a lot more about Nixon (and Truman, and Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and Johnson), and the Post in the 70s, and the New York Times before the New York Times decided to be a piece of shit, than it is about Trump, or the WaPo today.  On balance, that's almost certainly a good thing.  It lets you draw your own conclusions—at least on this count.

It is perhaps a slight pity that the same restraint could not be found for its empowerment message: Sarah Paulson, one of the many fine actors in bit roles in The Post and without a doubt the least well-served as Bradlee's wife, takes a break from making sandwiches to leadenly express the screenwriters' and director's feelings about how gosh-darned great it was that this unbelievably rich woman was able to make a business decision.  It is the unrivaled nadir of this movie, up to and including that mostly-pointless and even-more-perfuctory Vietnam prologue.  (Seriously, there are two things only that recommend that Vietnam prologue.  One is the efficiency of its introduction to both the RAND Corporation whistleblower who got the whole Pentagon Papers ball rolling, Daniel Ellsberg, and to the then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who shall be important later on—and who is, gratifyingly, portrayed by Bruce Greenwood with a certain sense of flawed integrity.  The other point of recommendation, though, is maybe less easy to defend, and this is that weird grace note which The Post grants us right up front, of watching a squad of infantrymen slowly stain their faces with camouflage greasepaint, as if it were turning someone on.)

Well, regardless: when it comes to The Post's position on women, Spielberg has, as he has so often done in the past, already told the story with his pictures so bluntly and so thoroughly that the screenplay just gets right in the damn way.  I don't need it said aloud that I'm supposed to find Kay Graham inspirational—more than once, even, Christ!—and certainly not when Spielberg has already communicated that quite well, and in his own earnest register, with the blocking of nervous, hopeful women in the shots which Graham has to move through, in order to get to the men who'd presume it's their right to tell her what to do.  Gracious, it's surely not the slightest bit more subtle, I know—but it's the imagistic Spielberg of old, who didn't give a shit about subtlety.  It's the Spielberg who found the art and power in a camera rather than a typewriter—and I'm so happy he just threw himself into The Post the way he did.  I'm half-convinced that the sheer flustered speed of the production was precisely what let him get back to where he used to be: making movies by instinct and intuition, rather than the more thoughtful and much logier Spielberg who's dominated the director's more recent vintage.  If the hurried pace means that, sometimes, Tom Hanks teleports around Meryl Streep like the editor at the Washington Post was actually Kurt Wagner in pink makeup, that's still a relatively small price to pay for The Post's unbridled immediacy.

And it's fitting, indeed, that the controlled chaos of The Post's creation reflects the dizzy industriousness of the Post itself!  There's an irresistible momentum to the way Spielberg dives heedlessly headfirst into these messy newsrooms, and those middle-class houses turned-into-newsrooms, that our newspapermen (and women) live and breathe in.  Suffice it to say that veteran production designer Rick Carter's efforts are incredibly expressive and wonderful, even in a 70s period recreation of Washington, D.C., which is about as close to the most quotidian thing you could possibly production design.

But if it is Spielberg's best work in a while, and it is, it's Spielberg's permanent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's best work in an even longer span—in fact, probably also since Munich, though War Horse may have a thing or two to say about it—and it's not, actually, because Kaminski has done much to tone the more offensive aspects of the Spielinski style down.  So, yes: once again, behold his shaft of light—there is a shot which (mostly incidentally) happens to contain Bob Odenkirk's Most Important WaPo Reporter, Ben Bagdikian, that is possibly composed of up to 40% a close-up of a fluorescent light bulb—but the difference is that this time it feels correct, or at least motivated.  There's something about the severe chilliness of Kaminski's palette, combined with the muscular litheness of his long observational tracking shots, that fits this period like a glove.  It is, as a result, both more interesting and more "authentic" than Lincoln or Bridge of Spies ever seemed.  (Though I hasten to point out, it doesn't actually look quite like a 70s film, the way Munich did; it simply captures the spirit of that depressed age, and perhaps the simple genius of it is how it hybridizes it, with this one.)

On the other hand, it's never as balls-out Kaminskian as Bridge of Spies, either, so it has that going for it, if absolutely nothing else—not to mention a surfeit of breathless shots of the industrial underpinnings of the WaPo business, which Spielberg clearly finds at least as cool as anything to do with its people (as do I).  Finally, there are some mammothly bizarre images in The Post, when purple blooms into the frame—I have no idea what it means, and unless I'm wrong, Spielberg isn't a rigorous enough symbolist for it to mean anything.  But it does do some powerfully strange things to the color balance, in an inexplicably gratifying way.

And the story is the story, the themes are the themes, and I enjoyed both—I realize, belatedly, I've not recapped the "plot," but then, the "plot" is "will this famous historical event happen," and it does, so I don't feel that bad about skipping it.  And, like I said, half the value of The Post is the way it swirls around you as you try to drink it all in.  It's a tall glass of relevance Spielberg's got here; despite that, you can tell the man was having fun.  I'm frankly amazed it's as good as it is—but the important thing is that it is good.  Very, very good.

Score: 8/10


  1. Oh boy, you are NOT gonna like my review of The Post.

    1. I can see reasonable minds differing on the value of The Post. I was astonished that I *didn't* find it boring (and, indeed, my assumption that it would be kind of boring and listless was why this Spielberg movie didn't get featured here until it had been out for nearly a month).

      And, if it's helpful, it's a very, very insecure 8/10, that could, at any moment--though I suppose a rewatch after I buy the thing would be most appropriate--be cut down to a very, very high 7/10. But "fuck it," I said, "it's Spielberg, and he deserves a small reward for making a movie that's only 116 minutes long and has a proper narrative drive, and even a proper ending, for the first time in forever."

      I did ask myself, "Is this better than Logan or I, Tonya?", however, and the answer was "definitely yes."