Steven Spielberg’s drama about the publication of the Pentagon Papers is a cliché-filled slog
the Post (Steven Spielberg). 116 minutes. Opens Friday (January 5). See listing, this page. Rating: NN
A key scene in The Post goes into the bowels of the Washington Post’s headquarters to the printing press, where type is being set to prep the next morning’s publication of the historic Pentagon Papers. The plates are lovingly shot and practically caressed by workers putting them into place. And the newspapers cascading from the press create a gorgeous, swirling design.
Those scenes, intended to make us ache for the pre-digital days when print ruled, are the best thing about the movie. That’s not saying much about a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. But The Post is actually a dreary slog, laden with clichés.
It has two main narrative arcs. It’s 1971, when Richard Nixon reigned supreme in the White House. The editorial team, led by Ben Bradlee (Hanks) has to decide whether to publish Daniel Ellsberg’s illegally secured government documents showing that every administration since the 50s has lied about what’s going on in Vietnam.
But the buck stops at publisher Katharine Graham (Streep), who gained ownership of the paper when her husband Phil died. She’s wholly unprepared for the job, never having worked a day in her entitled life, and has to make the business decision of a lifetime, which
could threaten the IPO she’s just
launched raft of publication employees on the stock could to jail. exchange. send her and Crucially, a
Even though we know how it ends, this story could be fascinating. But the film just plods along. Hanks is turning into a walking cliché as the persistent guy staying true to his principles – in this case, the value of freedom of the press. Streep shows discipline by toning it down as the dithering publisher. But who wants a muted performance from Streep? And the conflicts, between fretful lawyers and Bradlee, for example, feel stagey.
Even the exciting aspect of the story, the search for Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys) and the cloak-and-dagger transportation of the documents to the Post building, is subverted when Ellsberg suddenly appears on TV after a crucial Supreme Court ruling is delivered. Huh? How did that happen? Last time we saw him, he was hiding and deeply fearful.
Most of the fault lies with writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, neither of whom have major credits on their resumé. But it doesn’t help that Spielberg is a true believer in America and everything he thinks it stands for. It’s what almost fully sabotaged Saving Private Ryan. Here, when a news reporter reads the court’s decision defending a free press, Spielberg makes sure the music swells enough to make your eyes roll.
He might as well have used America The Beautiful on the soundtrack.
Meryl Streep is toned down in The Post. But who wants that?