News on President Trump’s slipshod efforts to discredit the media and his own Department of Justice — eerily similar to Nixon’s rabid treatment of the press and his own charges of obstruction of justice — as well as the discussion on workplace gender politics fountaining from the #MeToo movement, currently dominate US headlines. Such a stage set, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is most certainly a necessary film — though one which fails to capitalise on the underlying, long-dormant anger welling from topical issues.
The facts are in about the Pentagon Papers. In the early 1970s, the period setting for the film, the documents filched by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) flood in in such abundance and in such a short period of time that the Post and the Times had to hurriedly scan the sheafs upon sheafs of papers to find the most relevant and revealing clippings. Like now, where every week, sometimes every day is inundated with a new outrage to shift the focus of the press and the public, it was difficult to parse through it all and find the most important material. Spielberg, however, like the rest of America, has had the luxury to marinate in the facts regarding US involvement in Vietnam: we know that Nixon was just one in a string of presidents who allowed for details suggesting erosion of US prowess in the region to be suppressed.
Over the course of almost two decades, it is estimated that somewhere between 400,000 and 1 million US soldiers, South Vietnamese soldiers, and South Korean soldiers and civilians died. Anyone familiar with US media can see how deep a scar the Vietnam war left behind on our cultural consciousness, with films like Forrest Gump (1994, also starring Hanks), Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tim O’Brien.
“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. […] You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.” – Hunter S. Thompson.
So where is the anger in The Post? We have the clarity of retrospect in that we can see all the facts as one today, but even in the early ‘70s it was clear to Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that the US government was lying to the public in order to save military face, and at the cost of the lives of servicemen, some of whom would have been friends or family to these characters. Even before the reality of the Pentagon Papers sets, Graham herself shows mild frustration at being talked over in a board meeting she was meant to have some leverage in, but hardly anything to match what might be seen in the Women’s March of today — despite the film showing us glimpses of that era’s famous protests to the war. This does, however, encapsulate the reality of the time, the reinforcement of the notion that women ought to be demure and leave the tough talk to the men — a notion perhaps ingrained by Graham herself. Making the scene where Graham finally breaks free of that implicit control thoroughly satisfying.
Though, that climax was one of few which struck a chord with me, and partly due to the nature of the film’s sound design. In All the President’s Men (1976), the viewer is thrown into the chaos and bustle of a ‘70s newsroom. Important dialogue makes only a part of the cacophony of clacking typewriters, ringing phones, chatter and shouting. The Post’s sound effects are comparatively clean: the microphones focus heavily on the characters center-stage, with the rest of the newsroom muted to a trite buzz. This effect extends beyond the Post’s offices: even in a brief foray into the Times offices, even on the streets of 1970s New York City, things are abnormally quiet. Ironically, the most realistic portrayal of a newsroom comes when writers for the Post huddle in Bradlee’s house, sifting through the piles of documents they’ve received, fogging the man’s living room with smoke, frantic lawyers and overpriced lemonade, reflecting the actuality of an overwhelming flood of shocking new information, the sprint to declutter it all.
Ultimately what this film lacks is a fundamental passion. There’s nothing kinetic about the atmosphere, stripped as it is of its true noise. Bradlee and Graham’s motivations have too rational, economic a veneer — focusing far too much on journalistic integrity and backlash directed at the Post, distancing from the effects the Vietnam War had on all of America — absent that extra layer of the personal and the global seen in films of its ilk: The Big Short (2015), Spotlight (2015), the aforementioned All the President’s Men. This captured in what could have been the best scene in the film: as the papers print and roll out to street vendors, out into the world, Spielberg relies on some standard John Williams fare rather than the natural orchestral elements that the printing presses, like the newsrooms themselves, have. Then we shift suddenly to a “teaser scene” of the Watergate break-in to end the film — eclipsing The Post’s importance by treating its subject matter as if it were Marvel’s Avengers.