Mrs. Streep Goes to Washington
by REGGIE WOLTZ
In this era of movie making, with expansive franchises and retreads running amok as studios increasingly prefer sure things over more risky investments, a crucial step in getting an original film greenlit is the opening pitch. How good does a movie sound when you boil it down to one sentence? Some of the most recent Hollywood favorites have excellent pitches. Want Emma Stone to sing and dance her way to the Oscar’s podium? Sounds good. Can I interest you in Jordan Peele directing a horror movie about a black guy visiting his white girlfriend’s family? Sure, why not. How about an animated film that follows the daily lives of those little pictograms that you use in texts? Sign me up!
The Post has an inarguably better pitch than any of those. It’s a Steven Spielberg-directed drama about the Washington Post’s printing of the Pentagon Papers. The timing couldn’t be better as it arrives while the country’s political and social climates are not all that dissimilar to those of the Nixon-era United States. Oh, and it stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the king and queen of Hollywood. It’s almost like this movie was created in a lab to dominate the film awards circuit.
The thing about The Post that stands out the most is its incredible ensemble cast. Yes, the film centers around its binary star system, but the orbiting planets shine in their own way as well. Bob Odenkirk nails his role as lead journalist Ben Bagdikian–at times seeming like he is the real protagonist of this story. Bruce Greenwood does a tremendous job of emulating Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara without vilifying his character or creating undue sympathy for the man that had as much to do with the Vietnam War as any of the Presidents that he served. Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coons, Bradley Whitford, and Jesse Plemons give noticeable performances in their limited screen time. But the real unsung hero of the film, Michael Cyril Creighton, gives us the film’s best thirty seconds in his one scene as the junior reporter who gets several pages of the Pentagon Papers mysteriously dropped on his desk.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep earn their top billings in this one. They make the most of their massive portions of The Post’s runtime and the scenes they share buzz with the chemistry of two professionals at the top of their games. The problem is that they aren’t given much to work with.
Hanks’ Ben Bradlee isn’t a human so much as he is the imagining of what a pirate running a newspaper would be like. He bursts with personality and swagger but doesn’t appear in three dimensions. For being just as vital to the plot as Streep’s Kay Graham, Bradlee is never exposed or shown in his weak moments the way that she is. And boy, do we get a lot of weak moments from Graham.
Streep’s character is the thematic linchpin of the movie, drowning the audience in her internal conflict and cultivation of an authoritative presence. Many of her scenes amount to her pondering the same thing, over and over again. There are two concurrent conflicts in the movie, both having to do with Graham. The first is her questioning “Should I print the story even though it would hurt my relationship with McNamara?” The second is her questioning “Should I print the story even though it would possibly result in my newspaper dying and me going to jail?” If it seems like these are effectively the same question, it’s because they are. This makes it tedious for the movie to answer them one after another for the better part of two hours and makes Streep’s scenes frustrating to watch.
This weakness in storytelling is endemic to the true failure of The Post, its try-hard feminism. This movie was clearly designed to be a celebration of women, a distinction that it fails to earn the more the viewer thinks about it.
Spielberg is deft with the camera, using his frames efficiently, but the times that he does get fancy are used to accentuate the presence of a woman. Some examples include tracking shots that follow Bradlee’s daughter counting her lemonade stand proceeds, Graham moving past a picture of her father in the newsroom, and Graham moving through crowds of admiring women (one outside a room of the New York Stock Exchange, one outside the Supreme Court). Scenes centered on Streep hit us over the head with her point of view, which makes her unimpressive character all the more encumbering.
The story of The Post could be great, but the movie gets too caught up in trying to tell us that “Women are awesome!!” for that to actually happen. Instead of focusing on the courage of those who actually worked to bring the Pentagon Papers to light, it focuses on the courage of one person making a relatively easy decision. As such, it loses the dramatic appeal of having people sacrifice their lives in order to create an opportunity for the greater good to prevail (an appeal that Spotlight rode to win Best Picture at the Oscars just two years ago), in favor of telling the story of the woman who is only tasked with giving the okay to execute on that opportunity. This misappropriation not only engenders the aforementioned redundant double conflict that bogs the movie down, it creates a load of forced themes and hypocrisy.
Who is it that risked being convicted of treason to steal the original documents? Who called the shots for the team that was responsible for bringing the Pentagon Papers to light? Who did the digging in order to find the leak and gather the resources that allowed the news story to be printed? Who made the final call for all of their hard work to pay off?
I’m not saying that Kay Graham wasn’t brave in making her decision or that women don’t add much to this story. I just want to make it clear that it is a reach for a film about the printing of the Pentagon Papers to congratulate a woman as if she made it all happen. That is just not the truth of the reality and, as a result, The Post takes a great pitch and throws it in the dirt.
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