Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review: "The Post" Romanticizes the Value of Journalism to Its Full Potential

Scene from The Post
In 2017, the term "fake news" defined a crisis of journalistic integrity. Regardless of its actual merit, it lead to a rising concern of who could be trusted within the media. After all, these are the people telling millions of people the important events as they happen. With director Steven Spielberg's The Post, it's the heart of the conversation at The Washington Post prepares to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers. It's a film that asks the question as to who could be trusted to deliver the news, and the importance of reporting the stories honestly. It may be at times a conventional and polished look at the world of journalism, but its most triumphant moments are defined by hard work and the knowledge that truth prevailed. It's a message that seems as timely now as it did 45 years ago, making The Post into an even more prescient period piece.

The film takes place predominantly in 1971 at the Washington Post. The scenic shots overlook The White House, which has long been considered a friendly place of cohabitation. The newspaper's executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) brags casually about fraternizing with President John F. Kennedy almost weekly. It's a place where news and politics look to be a unified force. That is, until the controversial revelations brought forth by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) that the war in Vietnam hasn't been going well for decades now. More than ever, the news needs provide the truth, and the government has become stingy in their partnership. This is the crux of The Post's conflict as they rise from third-rate newspaper to one of the pinnacles of contemporary journalism. The story itself is too conveniently told to ever be the nail-biter of an All the President's Men or even Spotlight, but in its place is a civil discussion of what journalism means not only in 1971, but why it matters now.

As much as Spielberg is searching for "the truth," he's also exploring journalism as a business. The Post suffers from being a day late to The New York Times' biggest stories, meaning that there's no reliability on them producing groundbreaking work. The Pentagon Papers don't just symbolize "the truth," but also a business within it, where millions will read these words and have their lives altered forever. It's a glorified vision of what journalism is supposed to mean in American society, of which serves the governed and not the governor. They're supposed to provide an understanding of the world that exists as it happens. With the Vietnam War bringing out hostility, certainty is a commodity that the White House is too timid to share. It's an admittance of guilt, which makes The Post into more rebellious forces as they dig into boxes of heavy-hitting manuscripts and question just how illegal their actions are. The Post may be a simplified and even romanticized version of journalism, but it knows that part of integrity is how a story is sold, and its second act breaks down semantics in excellent detail.

The camera swings through the newsroom like the shark in Jaws, creating a grand scope of desks and typewriters working together to orchestrate this moment. Every character, no matter how prominent, adds something to the bigger story and plays into Spielberg's impeccable gift for casting major actors in minor roles. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian gets the most supporting work, capturing the danger of phone calls that could land him in jail, or his access to information that could ruin his career. Still, there is passion in every performance as they all orchestrate a reassembling of the truth into a historical moment. It seems thankless, but Spielberg's too in love with making the simple act of paper organizing into character developing scenes where arguments are had over legalities and the belief that the Pentagon Papers isn't just one story, but many. The Post is in love with the ideas to the point that it creates whole montages around the news printing machines that lead papers sky high, as if ascending to a higher calling. It's all so luxurious, even if there's an underlying dread to the worst case scenario.

Owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is the curious outlier to the entire story in that she recognizes the Pentagon Papers as her big break, but is also intimidated by men. As she ascends the stairs, often symbolically rising from a crowd of women as a volunteer, she enters the male-dominated environment and does her best to avoid intimidation. Streep has given many compelling performances over her career, but she's rarely better than when she's negotiating her personal stance on publishing the truth. She is the moral center of the film, even if her story is at times too removed from the narrative for poignancy. The film attempts to add feminism to the story of journalistic integrity in the third act with Graham's own struggles, but they feel tacked on to account for 2017's changing ideals. Her role is powerful enough without the brutally frank speeches, but it plays into the triumphant vision of which Spielberg wants to paint. This is Streep reminding everyone that she can give charismatic performances full of depth and emotion, managing to do so amid a cast full of memorable performances.

If there's anyone who's underrated in the film, it's Spielberg himself. He has an odd contradiction to his approach, as the story feels a bit rushed in order to capture the zeitgeist of 2017. John Williams' score feels more serious and generic than usual, at times servicing as second-rate Alexandre Desplat work. However, there's something powerful about his visual story telling, of which creates a greater sense of journalism through imagery. The simple act of Bagdikian talking on the phone as a police car passes gives deeper insight into the story's dangerous narrative. Had the central story had as much subtle and poetic moments like this, then maybe the film would be on par with other recent journalism masterpieces like Spotlight. Instead, it barely misses this poignancy by never really giving The Post's staff personal motivation, of which would give the potential lawsuits more levity. Had a private relationship been effected by the publication, then maybe the film would've felt more intense. Instead, it feels a bit distant, choosing to be more of a dissertation on journalistic integrity. It's not a terrible thing to strive for, but it keeps the film from feeling as personal and triumphant as the director's embarrassingly incredible filmography.

The Post is sure to appeal to those wanting to believe in the power of "the truth" in a time where it's being wrongly questioned. In that way, the story feels relevant in spite of it taking place almost half a century ago. These themes still impact daily lives, and the odd similarities between the Nixon White House and today's only adds to the ways that the film feels destined to capture the zeitgeist. It's tough to suggest that this film isn't distracting in this context, but it's only because the struggles never went away. They merely morphed into other situations. It's hard to believe that The Washington Post was ever an underdog of journalism, but this film perfectly shows how they overcame the odds. True, it may be a bit too glorified and focused on a straightforward story, but it is meant to also show what happens when reporters are forced to step away from disillusionment and find the real truth. It's not always easy, but doing it correctly will have positive ramifications throughout history. The Post may not quite be the best journalism movie out there, but it's definitely one of the most wondrously filmed and acted out there. 

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