Speaking as one who’s had problems with Steven Spielberg films (or at least with the manipulative lather and chain-pullings that Spielberg has insinctually applied) for the entire 21st Century and a good part of the 20th, The Post, a smartly written, well-performed tale of how and why Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) decided to man up and a grow a pair in the thick of the Pentagon Papers episode of June 1971, is far and away my favorite Spielberg film since Saving Private Ryan, which opened 19 and 1/2 years ago. Call it Spielberg’s best, certainly his least problematic, in two decades.
The critical verdict hasn’t been unanimous but I fell for it, and I mean all the way through and not just during the manipulative third act, which, if you have any stored-up sentiment about the glory days of 20th century print-and-ink journalism, will definitely melt you down. I knew I was being sold a Spielbergian bill of goods but I bought it anyway. I gushed out some thoughts the day after, and a New York friend replied, “Calm down, Tonto…it’s very good but not great.”
The Post is a real “Spielberg film” in some ways, but it’s much smarter, better written (cheers to Liz Hannah and especially Josh Singer, who, I’m told, did a page-one rewrite of Hannah’s original spec draft), more persuasive and much more compellingly performed than Lincoln or Bridge of Spies or anything else Spielberg has made this century.
As much as I tend to resist Spielbergian devices (including his frequent habit of leaning on a swelling John Williams score), this one caught me. I knew I was being sold a bill of goods, that I was being asked to submit to an emotional tale about good-guy journalists in the tradition of Newsfront, Deadline USA and Jack Webb’s -30-, but I bought it.
There’s a third-act moment on the steps of the Supreme Court when Streep walks down into a crowd of gazing, admiring women…I’m not going to describe it any further but it really works, and (honestly?) it even made me choke up a bit. I’m naturally inclined to like any rigorously realistic film about good-guy journalists, but The Post delivered the strongest emotional experience I’ve had with any ’17 film since my initial Sundance viewing of Call Me By Your Name and my early September viewing of Greta Gerwig‘s Lady Bird.
This is why I think the Best Picture Oscar is going to come down to a choice between one of these three. I’m in the tank for Luca Guadagnino, of course, but if the Academy goes for The Post or Lady Bird, I will at least understand.
There’s a community of older industry voters (i.e., straight white guys) who may not want to vote for a gayish film two years in a row, and who may feel a tad resentful that The Post isn’t Spotlight-y enough or not a close enough kin of All The President’s Men, and these guys, I suspect, will go for Lady Bird or perhaps another favorite.
But at the end of the day I wouldn’t surprised if The Post takes the big prize. It has Tom Hanks costarring with Meryl, it’s boomer-friendly, and it really, really doesn’t like Donald Trump (who serves, of course is a present-tense substitute for Richard M. Nixon, the White House occupant who went to court to prevent the N.Y. Times and the Washington Post from printing summaries of Daniel Ellsberg‘s Pentagon Papers.
The performances by Streep, Hanks (as the legendary, raspy-voiced Post edtor Ben Bradlee) and especially Bob Odenkirk (who plays Post editor Ben Bagdikian, the guy who got in touch with Ellsberg after the initial N.Y. Times Pentagon Papers scoop and landed a copy for his Post colleagues) completely rule.
Does Williams’ score feel a little too emphatic at times? Towards the end, yeah. But it’s not as annoyingly over-scored as his Amistad score.
I missed Alan Pakula’s brighter, slightly more colorful design of the Washington Post newsroom from All The President’s Men. The reds, in particular. Spielberg’s house cinematographer Janusz Kaminski always goes for that grayer, murkier color scheme.
My New York “Tonto” friend said, “I think you’re slightly agog. Remember it’s not about priests assaulting eight year olds or about Watergate. It’s about a report that a paper decided to print. There’s a reason this story hasn’t been told before. It doesn’t feel all that compelling on its own steam. Unless a lot of famous actors portraying regular-guy journalists sitting in a Georgetown townhouse buying overpriced lemonade…it’s not compelling unless these actors tell us that it is.”
Another critic friend: “It never made me tingle the way Spotlight or All the President’s Men did. Plus it has too many Spielberg-y touches: the little girl selling lemonade (Jesus!), that [redacted] ending. It all felt forced rather than organic, despite strong performances from Streep and Hanks.
“It was also two hours of people going ‘We can’t do that!’ and others saying ‘We have to do that!’
“All in all it’s a solid three-star movie — but a long way from 3.5 or 4.”
A fourth critic friend (younger guy): “Another talky Spielberg political drama in somewhat the same vein as Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Old fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship. Sielberg is clearly going through a Victor Fleming phase, one of his idols, or, dare I say it, a Stanley Kramer phase as well, another favorite of his. Streep clearly overshadows Hanks here despite both sharing equal amounts of screen time.
“Bob Odenkirk is the supporting actor MVP. Kaminski photography wasn’t too intrusive, but John Williams’ score was atrocious. By-the-books drama that goes along just fine, has a few powerful scenes here and there. I really liked how it just zipped along, not wasting any time between scenes.
“Overall if this wins Best Picture Oscar it’ll be because of the current political parallels than it being ‘the best of the year.'”