Does a good story, per se, have the power to result in an interesting film? While we can be tempted to believe it so, it takes much more to create a powerful movie, no matter how timely its subject may be. In his latest work, powerhouse director Steven Spielberg gathers the help of two of the most loved and accoladed actors of their generation to tell a story about freedom of the press and how the government-damning Vietnam papers finally ended up being released to the US public.
In “The Post“, its main stars are referred to in the poster by last-name only: make way for Hanks and Streep, everybody. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the heiress who, after her father and husband’s deaths, led a family newspaper into nationwide relevance. She faces the rejection of the old, white men who make up the paper’s board, and is the constant subject of mansplaining at its worst. Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor-in-chief of “The Washington Post” who is talented and a bit rough, sometimes harsh but certainly dignified. Haven’t we seen this before?
But we wouldn’t have these papers without the Vietnam War, so the film opens to a quick and nearly indistinctive montage of a battle in the jungle, set to – guess what – the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Nothing says “Vietnam flashback” like a CCR song, right? Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the military analyst who photocopied and leaked reports proving how different US presidents lied and prolonged a war they couldn’t win, makes only a brief appearance. This story is not about him, although perhaps it would have been more interesting if it were.
This is, instead, a tale about how “The Washington Post” ended up with the papers in hand, and the decision process to either run the story or not, after “The New York Times” was already facing a legal battle that prevented it from doing so. What ensues are sequences we can already expect: board members and journalists exposing their arguments for both calls, people working hard into the wee small hours of the morning while the “woman of the house” – Bradlee’s wife, played by Sarah Paulson – serves them sandwiches, lawyers running around in suits attempting to understand the limits of what can be done, and the consequences they would have to face.
From the get-go, the feeling we have is that, once again, Hanks is trapped in his own caricature. The film, ultimately, belongs to Streep. We’re glad to witness her transformation from a wealthy socialite into a businesswoman who, although afraid, doesn’t shy away from making decisions. Being able to understand who she is, where she comes from, and what dilemmas she still faces give us, perhaps, the strongest moments of the film. It’s Meryl Streep we’re talking about, after all, now receiving her 21st Oscar nomination in an acting category, adding layers of emotion and nuance even to basic script.
Ultimately, how the story was resolved is no news. But a bitter taste lingers in our mouths long after the film’s over. Most of it seems to be the result of the constant self-congratulatory tone it adopts. We get it, the press should be free to publish its own stories – nobody with a democratic bone in their bodies questions that – but knowing how close the press also is to the circles of power and how symbiotic their existences are, we constantly feel a big chunk is missing. Don’t make this all to be about morals and ethics when we know damn well it’s also about money, power, and survival. And again, that’s not a problem, just don’t pretend it’s not part of the equation.
Releasing a film like this in a time when the current US president constantly attacks the existence of the press and attempts to undermine its importance is certainly a good way of establishing resistance. But perhaps some more time would have done Spielberg, his movie, and the script of Liz Hannah and Josh Singer good. By giving more depth to his other characters and creating a more nuanced story, one that would take more than just make-believe morals into account, this could have been a hell of a movie. For now, it’s just yet another pat in the back of the press for doing the right thing. Since when do we hand out awards for that?
Director: Steven Spielberg (also known for “Bridge of Spies” and “The Terminal”, both with Tom Hanks in central roles.)