by Benjamín Harguindey
Before Watergate there was the Pentagon Papers, classified documents detailing the historical and military involvement of the United States in Vietnam for over 20 years. These were leaked and published by the New York Post and, more the point of this movie, by the Washington Post. It’s so much easier to root for the underdog, which was the case of the Post in 1971, when it was about to go public and was headed by the rare female editor.
The Post (2017) roughly covers the story from the leaking of the papers to the climactic duel between the newspaper and Congress over the first amendment – a first in the history of the country. In a world filled with terms such as “alternative facts” and “fake news”, slightly redolent of 1984 Newspeak, The Post feels like a statement both against the Nixon administration as much as Trump’s. Broadly speaking, this is a movie about standing up to your government should freedom of speech be questioned.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie is another entry in a filmography increasingly like Frank Capra‘s in terms of social justice and call to exceptionalism. As with Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015), the historical drama somewhat errs on the side of didacticism, which makes the movie feel pleased with itself and in turn lose whatever tension its story may carry. Even the decision to cast Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, bona fide patriarch & matriarch of the American everymen both for their movie roles and beyond, speaks of a slightly chummy attempt at patronization.
Consider All the President’s Men (1976), also about the Post, also about unearthing a government scandal: at no point does The Post even begin to ape that movie’s narrative power because it always feels so placid and sure about itself; it’s more about imparting a foregone lesson than telling a story spontaneously. The movie is less interested about the contents of the so-called Pentagon Papers and what they entail and more about the bureaucracy surrounding their disclosure. So if anything this feels like an example of self-regulation rather than an actual criticism of the system.
For what it’s worth Spielberg is best suited for these kinds of stories – nobody rallies every strata of society on film quite like him, depicting as convincing a Norman Rockwell Americana as a filmmaker can achieve without getting overly sentimental or condescending. You get a sense of character and world-building from even the tiniest bit parts, and there’s an agreeble, picaresque subcurrent of humor prevailing from one scene to another that makes the story so much more engaging than its naked plot points would suggest.
Ultimately The Post feels like a placid history lesson with an obvious moralistic endgame, but what its narrative lacks in drama it makes up with Spielberg’s trademark visual ingenue and dependable performances. It’s kinda hard imagining a future for this movie past the upcoming Academy Awards, where it will resonate the loudest (together with Darkest Hour, it has every making of “Oscar bait”), but the friendly reminder of the importance of freedom of speech is more than welcome right now.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).