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The Post – A Film Review

January 31, 2018

Spielberg Adds Drama to a Historic Paper Chase 

Steven Spielberg is the quintessential Hollywood movie director. He’s often too patriotic for my liking – Saving Private Ryan comes to mind – but sometimes he chooses topics that go beyond patriotism to real cinematic studies of historic events. The Post, about the risky publication of the Pentagon Papers, is one of those.

It succeeds where some of his previous efforts have not. His attempt to tackle slavery with Amistad, for example, was not well received. And many of his enterprises have been innovative but ultimately titillating rather than enlightening. Schindler’s List, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln are obvious exceptions.

I suppose I should be happy that someone with his creative clout and bargaining power with the big studios wants to make movies with a progressive message. The creator of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind could just keep on producing movies that make huge amounts of box office moolah but don’t further our understanding of history.

The Post opens with whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg on combat patrol in Vietnam. Mathew Rhys of The Americans plays Ellsberg as he returns stateside and secretly gathers all the damning evidence about the way subsequent American presidents prosecuted the war.

Spielberg also openly criticizes the American military role. Here is where he might have gotten the patriotic jitters. After all, this is dangerous territory, especially in Trump times. But he films the events that lead up to the lasts days of Richard Nixon’s White House with honesty.

He takes us inside that post-Camelot world of wealth and influence and makes us feel the tension of decisions that will probably destroy long-term friendships such as the one between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Post owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep). We see the pressure increasing as the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers eats away at editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and forces Graham to put everything on the line.            Spielberg excels at such tension.

Hanks has found his niche with this type of role. He has a calming effect. He’s likeable. He doesn’t work as a bad guy and Spielberg has capitalized on that. It’s a nice career rescue for Hanks after starring in B-movies about the Da Vinci code. Was he a match for Jason Robards Jr.? Maybe. All the President’s Men was a different movie with a different focus.

Streep was efficient but not exceptional as Katherine Graham. I believe this will be her 19th Oscar nomination and she’s always deserving, but this role did not bring out anything extraordinary She looked a lot like she did as Margaret Thatcher a few years back. Her well-known speech hesitations and mannerisms are getting stereotypical. Where is the unpredictable Streep of Sophie’s Choice or The French Lieutenant’s Woman or even as the young woman in The Deer Hunter?

Others are solid in lesser roles: Bob (Just Call Saul) Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian, Bruce (Batman, Mad Men) Greenwood as McNamara, and Carrie (Gone Girl, Fargo) Coon as editorial writer Meg Greenfield. I also loved the historic scenes about the old newspaper days. It reminded me of my own early days as a printer’s devil up in the Northwest Territories back in the early 1970s. We weren’t using hot type any more, but I was in on the early stages of the photo-offset method that replaced it.

I especially liked the long shot of Hanks and Streep walking through the multistory pressroom as the Post snakes toward the ceiling and down again, making its way to the streets and into some history of its own.

This is Spielberg’s forte. He knows how to use the camera to tell a story even if it is one that involves a paper chase. Of course it was no ordinary paper chase. With perfect timing, he keeps us spellbound while a bunch of reporters and editors race against time and a Supreme Court injunction to bring down a president.

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