A pile of muck (old muck, too) with no rake, Steven Spielberg’s National Board Of Review-approved Nixon-era newspaper drama The Post lacks the exact thing it glorifies: a reporter’s instinct for story. Not that there isn’t anything to admire about the movie, which portrays the events that surrounded the leak of a top-secret Department Of Defense history of the United States’ objectives and operations in Vietnam—the infamous “Pentagon Papers”—from the point-of-view of the publisher and editors of The Washington Post. It’s another of Spielberg’s sincere (but in many cases critical) examinations of tested American values (Bridge Of Spies, Lincoln, Amistad, etc.), intriguingly preoccupied with the behind-the-headlines drudgery of running a paper: copy editors, board meetings, legalese, linotype. The subject matter might be timely (never mind the irony of calling a paean to print journalism The Post), but the film keeps losing the plot.
It goes something like this: In June 1971, as Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner and publisher of The Washington Post, is preparing the paper for an initial public offering, her executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), catches wind of a major story that’s about to break over at The New York Times. This turns out to be the Pentagon Papers—7,000 pages of analyses and original documents smuggled a few years earlier out of the Santa Monica offices of the RAND Corporation by a defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). Though Ellsberg’s identity is at this point a secret, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), a Post editor who knows him personally, suspects he may be the source of the leak. But just as the Post is getting ready to put together its own version of what’s become the biggest story in the country, the Times get slapped with a federal court injunction that blocks it from continuing to report on the Papers. And the rest is—well, there’s actually a lot more.
The set-up is laborious; it takes a serious chunk of the movie and enough back-and-forth pacing to wear holes in the ugly ’70s carpeting. We see Ellsberg in Vietnam in the ’60s; the Times reporters working on the story in a hotel room; Graham in meetings; Bagdikian making calls from a wide array of old phones; the silhouette of Nixon in the Oval Office. (Nixon’s own White House tapes supply the dialogue; the effect never really works.) Spielberg is too reverent to let these scenes zip along in the style of a journo-thriller and not angry enough to strike a note of paranoia. He still mistrusts counterculture and portrays Ellsberg ambivalently. The carcinogenic smokiness of the era’s newsrooms and offices lends itself to the fog-machine lighting style of Janusz Kamiński, his regular cinematographer since Schindler’s List. But the camerawork is some of the duo’s least dynamic, apart from a few extraneous sequences. (More on that later.)
Instead, one soaks in surface pleasures—the comings and going of the enticing (but unwieldy) supporting cast, a Who’s Who of character actors that includes Bruce Greenwood (as former Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara, no less), Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Pat Healy, and Jesse Plemons. (In an informal Mr. Show reunion, David Cross also pops in as Bagdikian’s editorial colleague Howard Simons, sporting a disheveled cat-hair comb-over.) There are also those ominous, sometimes expressionist flourishes: pneumatic tubes sucking away edited copy; the Post newsroom shuddering in the night as the printing presses on the floor below grumble to life; the glowing maw of a bulky, primitive Xerox machine taunting Ellsberg to copy America’s dirty secrets. There is some insight here into the relationship between journalism and machines, which seemed more obvious when the machines themselves were loud and scary.
The Post’s vaguely overlapping crises-of-conscience (business vs. journalism, politics vs. public trust, readers vs. insiders) come down to one question: Does The Washington Post go ahead with its front-page article? The decision falls on Graham, a Beltway socialite who took over the paper after her husband committed suicide. (That said husband was picked by Graham’s father to run the Post—that is, he married into the business that she grew up in—is one clue to the gender politics at work here.) Though Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay has no shortage of interesting but only partially articulated ideas, the center of The Post is a blur. Bridge Of Spies, the last Spielberg movie to take a field trip to the Supreme Court, had a more convoluted narrative, but it also had its lawyer hero’s unrelenting principles to fall back on—not to mention its sense of wit.
Jason Robards won an Oscar for playing Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men, the movie that immortalized The Washington Post’s fluorescent-grid newsroom. It seems smaller here. Hanks, who has become an important figure in Spielberg’s American iconography, makes him into Graham’s conscience. His character is inconsistently written, but their stage-bound tête-à-têtes are some of The Post’s best scenes; it’s only in in embracing this Broadway artificiality that the movie makes its ethical and personal conflicts seem plausible. Would it be too much to say that Spielberg has trouble directing from the perspective of Graham, one of the very few female protagonists in his body of work?
He zeroes in on gestures—the way Graham unclips an earring as she answers the phone, or a terrific bit of sound design that has her keep jangling her keys during a tense conversation with McNamara, a close friend. But though Streep gives a fine, credible performance, Spielberg’s famously flexible camera only perks up when it reverts to the boy’s-eye-view that is his signature: as Ellsberg secrets the first volume of the Pentagon Papers out of RAND; as a Post intern bluffs his way into the Times building, acting as Bradlee’s spy; as Bagdikian has his meeting with Ellsberg in a Boston motel room, every inch of bed- and floorspace stacked with papers. The simple truth about Spielberg is that the darkest and most mature moments in his films are subversions of his own most naïve instincts and sentiments. As a filmmaker, he has become more thoughtful with age, but his unshakeable inner child is still more interested in printing presses than the uncertainties of steering a company.