Spielberg Historical Drama "The Post" Is A Superficial Love Letter To Itself

The great newspaper films in history (“All The President’s Men,” “Zodiac,” “Spotlight”) all have one crucial thing in common: they’re not really about newspapers. Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is about a newspaper (the Washington Post circa 1971), its most engaging imagery by far being the inner workings of a printing press. Despite a wealth of theoretically fascinating players – Meryl Streep stars as trailblazing newspaper magnate Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks as her editor Ben Bradlee – the pic’s transparent award season aspirations create an impassable fissure between subject matter and charisma, resulting in the kind of glib, baby boomer-friendly production the director used to cede to the likes of Robert Zemeckis.

Unlike David Fincher’s peerless “Zodiac,” for example, Spielberg’s twenty-ninth feature fails repeatedly to locate the human center of its story. From the opening scene’s apathetic deployment of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” – the song accompanies arguably the most perfunctory combat scene the director has ever participated in – it’s apparent that “The Post” is chiefly concerned with broad strokes, rough etchings, and, ultimately, self-celebration.

Instead of the kind of narrative time jumping that might have greatly benefitted such temperate material, screenwriter Liz Hannah and “Spotlight” co-scribe Josh Singer keep things strictly chronological, attempting to exposition us to death for the better part of an hour. It only proves fatal to the film itself.

Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), now working as a civilian military contractor, has a crisis of conscience and decides to photocopy and make off with decades worth of classified papers, clumsily narrating insert shots for us all the while. Ellsberg’s disillusionment with the Vietnam War is corroborated. The documents confirm that several U.S. Presidents insisted on fighting a war they knew was futile – that they kept sending troops off to die – to keep up appearances of American exceptionalism. Ellsberg leaks the papers to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post is on the verge of an IPO, setting up 54-year-old Katharine Graham to seize the dreams of her late father and late husband for herself. As the razor-sharp heiress is belittled by her male advisors in advance of her paper’s big move (a common occurrence), Post editor Ben Bradlee becomes aware of his competitor’s big scoop. A scoop that lands the Times in court. As soon as Bradlee persuades Graham to fearlessly follow the Times’ lead with the Post, to risk its very existence, the film finds its mojo. A handful of terrifically tense scenes materialize, several involving Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) as he tracks down leads.

But the journey there is a bust. Although Streep and Hanks blessedly keep theatricality to a minimum, they don’t even begin to disappear into their characters, their star power combining with Janusz Kaminski’s suffocating cinematography to preclude immersion. Even when “The Post” finally begins to pop, Spielberg’s hallmarks – emotion and spectacle – merely get their feet in the door, the bulk of the movie practically announcing itself as a side project for the director while his special effects heavy “Ready Player One” undergoes post-production. The urgency of the filmmaker’s historical epics “Munich” and “Bridge Of Spies” is nowhere in sight.

There have been shoddier Oscar-friendly “issue movies” with superficially appealing casts. (Regrettably, television heavyweights Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson waste away in small supporting roles). But the film is staid and tensionless for too long, undermining the same sense of importance it proudly hangs its hat on. That it ends with a slick but gratuitous tease of the infamous Watergate apartment complex burglary is the perfect compendium: “The Post” is a foregone conclusion to the very end.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: 20th Century Fox, Amblin Entertainment
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Alison Brie, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Zach Woods
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and brief war violence)