Spielberg’s The Post
So far, one of my favourite things about living in France is that the cinema is much cheaper.
In fact, if you are lucky enough to work freelance and can get your ass to a morning screening it costs only €4.50. Ever since my Mum took me to see Moonwalker when my feet still dangled of the edge of the red velvet seat, I have loved going to the cinema. Andy and I figured that Spielberg’s The Post is exactly the sort of stirring call to arms film that you should go and see in the cinema, so last Wednesday morning we started our work day with two hours in the dark.
I feel strange going to see a Spielberg film because he has such a big reputation as a master story teller and maker of quality films that I take him for granted. I thought I had pretty low expectations for The Post, when in fact, I was assuming that Spielberg would produce a compelling story, BIG characters but that you can identify with and a convincing cautionary tale about freedom of expression on top of the dramatic action. That’s not an easy film to make. And as I sat down, I wondered if I had overestimated Spielberg and was in for hours of being hit over the head with American exceptionalism or filmsplained about the role of journalism or maybe distracted with action sequences of harried journalists trying to track down the copy of the Pentagon Papers.
Actually, the film surprised me.
It surprised me in several ways, in fact. The film looked exactly as I imagined- all the grey blue shades of a cold as steel day in an American city- and the acting for the most part had the heft and fullness that you would expect from a heavyweight movie. However, I wasn’t expecting the vast and striking visual contrast between the scenes showing the intricate, hard working mechanism of journalism and the scenes of rich, cosseted luxury that Katherine Graham’s character exists in for the first two thirds of the movie.
I was really stunned by how wealthy her family seemed and how that added a layer of complication to her role as a woman and as the owner of a news paper. The film, whether intentionally or not, was great at revealing how her daily experience was one of comfort and extreme privilege, moving her from beautiful stylish home to gleaming board rooms to high ceilinged restaurants, all of which made it even more difficult for her to connect with the issues in her own paper, and eventually stand up and rock the boat.
The film is really Katherine Graham’s story. Her role in the story is key but could easily have been sidelined in a more conventional telling of the events. Instead, the script places her at the very centre of the drama, which makes her evolution the emotional anchor of the film but also gives it symbolic significance, perhaps reflecting the fears of ‘The Establishment’ when faced with a threat to American democracy, particularly one that is so clearly wound up in American capitalism.
Meryl Streep, counter to her other recent powerhouse female characters, plays a Graham that is unsure, eager to please, fluttered with anxiety and nerves, intimidated by men, convinced of her own inadequacy in the role unexpectedly cast on her by her husband’s suicide. Her acting here is much more like the fragile, heartbroken characters in The Bridges over Madison County and Marvin’s Room, two films of hers that I love. The fragility in her portrayal of Katherine Graham is startling, finally we see a hero who reveals how terrifying and fraught it can be to go against the tide, rather than the usual unconvincing superhero Cinderella moment where she puts on a tweed skirt suit (or a gold kaftan…I was worried for a moment when I saw that appear) is transformed and suddenly wittily dominates her male entourage.
The choice to focus on Katherine Graham’s internal conflict fits perfectly with the other aspect of the film that I upturned my expectations. The film is about the decision to publish the Papers, not the aftermath, not the consequences. While it might have been more a more action filled movie if they had shifted the narrative to include more of the fall out from the printing of the Pentagon Papers, the political message of the film would have been less powerful and the film itself much less brave. If you left the movie complaining about the slow pace then you are missing the point. The action is the decision, the choice that Graham and the whole Washington Post team have to make between revealing State secrets- potentially putting soldier’s lives at risk or at least setting a dangerous precedent- acting as Government watchdog on behalf of the American people and possibly shutting down the company and losing their jobs.
Despite the largely intellectual focus of the film’s plot, I thought it was paced beautifully. I always felt the pressure of the events without feeling that key moments were rushed or brushed over. Nor did I feel like the connection between the film’s events and their relevance to the current battle between Trump and the press was ever hammered into us in that way that most big budget films feel necessary, for fear that we are ignoramuses.
There was one jarring moment however that almost ruined the whole experience for me. In the last ten minutes of the film, when the dramatic tension at its highest, the packed newsroom is waiting to hear what the Supreme Court has decided about their publication of the Papers. Throughout The Post‘s investigation of the Pentagon Papers, we have seen a single female journalist- Meg Greenfield- join in with the team, scrabbling to find a lead, speed reading memos and reports, typing up articles. Finally, a phone rings in the newsroom and Meg answers. The whole room goes silent. She begins to relay the information. Just as she starts to shout out the final decision, a large barrel chested white man in a shirt and braces steps out of a side room and shouts over her that the Court sided with The Post.
WHAT THE HELL?! What was Spielberg doing?!? I would assume that this is a short but purposeful moment of sexism to remind the viewer that regardless of Graham’s powerful decision, the world still pivots on a man’s word. Except…there is very little in the scene to confirm that message, we don’t cut back to Meg looking exasperated for example. And the scenes following this one seem instead to stress that Katherine Graham’s role in the events was instrumental in reinforcing the changing gender dynamics of the period, particularly in a scene where she leaves the court to be welcomed by a parting crowd of smiling young women dressed as ’70s’ activist’ hippies. The rude interrupting man never appears again. He does appear to be dressed as a banker or lawyer in his striped shirt and braces, so is he meant to represent capitalism rejoicing that it survived a bout of moral rectitude? Anyone else notice this? Any ideas?
That moment aside, I would recommend you go see The Post, or The Pentagon Papers as it’s inexplicably changed to in France. Not least for the really beautiful scenes of the typesetters preparing the copy and the printing presses is motion, but also because it doesn’t pander to narratives of easy heroism and will remind you that governments have made terrible mistakes before and can again.