Stop the presses

National Post (Latest Edition) - - THE CHATTER - Calum Marsh

It is a sen­si­ble pre­cau­tion of film crit­ics to be wary of claims to rel­e­vance. Of course, movies do seem some­times to ar­rive at the right mo­ment to re­spond to his­tory as it de­vel­ops be­fore us – per­haps for no rea­son more com­plex than our in­cli­na­tion to carry the zeit­geist with us to the cin­ema, and see it re­flected on the screen. But we’re too of­ten duped and flat­tered by that hor­ri­ble lit­tle word, “timely.”

We’re ea­ger for a vi­sion of the world and its prob­lems, and des­per­ate to be told what to do about them. We ad­mire the cos­tume drama whose pe­riod set­ting, with its sup­pos­edly by­gone plights or prej­u­dices, re­sem­bles the present day: we’re re­minded of con­tem­po­rary moral fail­ings, so the film thus be­comes, in the hack­neyed par­lance of the pull-quote and head­line, “more rel­e­vant now than ever.” We ap­plaud the sci­ence-fic­tion block­buster whose dire fore­cast of fu­ture peril crit­i­cizes our prox­im­ity to dystopia: what we’re meant to in­fer from prophe­cies of com­ing doom is that things are hope­less al­ready, and the film that bears this mes­sage is con­grat­u­lated for its “ur­gent” savvy – the “wake-up call we need right now,” grave and coura­geous.

Or we ex­alt a friv­o­lous, self-sat­is­fied pres­tige pic­ture such as The Post, thrilled to glory in its trite cel­e­bra­tion of demo­cratic ideals.

The car­ni­val of rap­tur­ous praise that met The Post upon its ar­rival to the­atres across North Amer­ica last week was to be ex­pected. Peo­ple who work for news­pa­pers tend to cher­ish movies about the im­por­tance of a free press – and dou­bly so in “this age of Trump,” a phrase grimly in­voked in re­views of the film by the Guardian, the New York Times, the New York Post, Play­boy and W Mag­a­zine, among sev­eral dozen oth­ers. In­deed the temp­ta­tion to com­mend The Post on the merit of its rel­e­vance has proven ir­re­sistible. It isn’t merely rous­ing, but “a pointed state­ment in Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica.” It isn’t just “ex­tra­or­di­nary,” but “ex­actly the gamechanger we need right this minute.” “Although the events of Steven Spiel- berg’s movie tran­spired 46 years ago,” writes one in­sight­ful critic, “they find sur­pris­ing rel­e­vance in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.” This is the re­sponse Spiel­berg courts with zeal. The sym­me­try duly em­pha­sized be­tween Nixon, whose ef­forts to re­press the pub­li­ca­tion of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers is the sub­ject of the drama, and Trump, whose name is (nat­u­rally) un­men­tioned but seems to linger on ev­ery ac­tor’s lips, is brazen and clear. The film even makes the con­nec­tion a punch­line: rel­ish­ing their tri­umph in court over the White House at the end of the pic­ture, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the Post’s ed­i­tor and pub­lisher, re­spec­tively, to­gether re­joice that the free press will never come un­der at­tack by a pres­i­dent in of­fice again, invit­ing us with a shared wink to laugh.

Fi­nally, in a coda that must be the five-minute nadir of Spiel­berg’s ca­reer, the Water­gate break-in is staged with the blithe comic gusto of a post-cred­its Marvel stinger – a mock-se­ri­ous happy end­ing meant to re-in­spire con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of an un­fet­tered press to hold the pow­er­ful ac­count­able. As drama, this end­ing is ridicu­lous; if one feels char­i­ta­ble, it’s maybe in­tended to be. Still, it feels false, at once too flip­pant and too sat­is­fied with its rec­ti­tude.

We know through­out The Post who is meant to be chas­tened by its mor­al­iz­ing: the ene­mies of democ­racy and the First Amend­ment, then and now, as well as all those com­pla­cent bu­reau­crats whose ab­sence of re­solve helps main­tain the sta­tus quo. We know, too, who is meant to be flat­tered by its ha­gio­graphic brio: we the en­light­ened, who share with the he­roes in their ven­er­ated glow, and who leave the cin­ema pleased with the un­der­stand­ing that we know the dif­fer­ence be­tween wrong and right.

Spiel­berg, as a film­maker, re­mains in com­mand of his gifts – the movie is ac­com­plished and fre­quently grat­i­fy­ing. But he has mis­judged the ef­fect of his ser­mon, and has the wrong idea about what we need now. The choir is preached to; those deaf to such mat­ters will con­tinue to ig­nore. Such a fee­ble cry of out­rage isn’t re­ally rel­e­vant at all.

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