Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Post Review

The Post is, by turns, a fantastically textured tale of a single landmark decision; and a cynical, disingenuous artifact of political pandering to the Academy. Whichever view of the finished product you adopt is likely to rest on your opinions of popular politics in the media, and the way in which you think the intentions of filmmakers impact their final products.

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are on impressive form as the owner and editor of The Washington Post respectively; Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Constantly looking for a scoop, the Post resides in the shadow of the ultra-prestigious New York Times, constrained by Graham’s ties with Nixon’s political elite. But when the Times discovers the Pentagon Papers, documents detailing institutional subterfuge and lying during the Vietnam war, an injunction is granted that prevents them from publishing the full extent of the damage.

Given the chance to see the papers for themselves, The Washington Post soon finds itself in a tricky dilemma, with Graham having to make the call between publishing or self-censoring. On one hand, Bradlee and the writers desk assert invocations of founding fathers and the first amendment, swelling with pride and belief in the ultimate power of democracy. On the other, the paper’s lawyers warn of impending criminal charges, and the Post’s newfound IPO investors threaten to invoke an exclusion clause to render the paper insolvent. Not to mention, of course, the personal connections that might be damaged as a result of such a disclosure.

The Post is largely a film about making that choice, and to the extent that it sticks to this mandate, it’s nothing other than a success. The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers may look like an obvious one from our side of history (as the adage goes, hindsight is 20/20), but Spielberg demonstrates with great skill that it was anything but. At times, it honestly looks like the best option would be for Graham to resist Bradlee, no matter how noble his aims, and protect her paper: it’s refreshing that we’re able to sympathise with both sides of the argument.

Streep and Hanks put on fantastic, nuanced performances; and Spielberg’s dialogue initially crackles with technical language that will reward the keen ear, perhaps even losing the lazy. This is, unashamedly, a film about conversation, and it’s fitting that the audience is almost included in the discussion. Similarly, marvellous period detail is conjured, dripping with nostalgia so prescient you can almost smell it, by beautiful 35mm camerawork that layers on that timeless three-dimensional texture we so know and love. You can feel the heat of the printing press, taste the alkaline twang of machine oil, and smell the plastic sheen of formica.

But, eventually - some would say inevitably – Spielberg’s technical, textured period piece begins to devolve into a sort of liberal elite populist Jesus-worship; with throngs of beautiful, young-faced types parting the red sea of protest for Graham outside the Supreme Court, soundtracked by the overwrought melodies of John Williams.

The fact is, if you awoke from a five-year coma to the sounds of Streep and Hanks bickering about the freedom of the press, you’d instantly know it was January. With awards season looming, political dissent brewing, and the common enemy of Trump acting as sitting duck, Spielberg has made an intensely false and disingenuous piece of work. From its textbook-villain portrayal of Richard Nixon, to increasingly hammy motivational dialogue about ‘rights’, and ‘the people’, The Post feels meticulously calculated to appeal to popular politics, and as a result feels like an incredibly clumsy critique of Donald Trump.

Despite the fantastic first and second acts, therefore, we’re left with the sour aftertaste of Hollywood commercialism: the bitter knowledge that the filmmaker, blinded by a golden statue, doesn’t give a shit about his story, or his actors, or his technique. Perhaps The Post is best encapsulated with its own closing shot: a cheap Watergate gag. Sure Steven, we get your point, but did you really have to make it with such little tact?
The Post gets 3 stars!

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