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Oscar Quest 2018: “The Post”

The Post!

“By all means,. do go on with your precious newsplaining.”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the other seven in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Onward to nominee #4, Steven Spielberg’s The Post. With multiple Oscar honorees Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in the marquee, this based-on-a-true-story salute to American journalism in the face of government malfeasance is one of the more old-fashioned films in the race, wielding a confluence of history and star power in the name of attempted topical relevance.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in the 1970s, a massive document nicknamed “the Pentagon Papers” was illegally copied and smuggled from their contained environment and leaked to select journalists. The documents carried incriminating evidence that four American Presidents — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — had authorized or otherwise personally endorsed American actions in Southeast Asia under less-than-commendable levels of legal, moral, and/or ethical justification that interfered with its respective governments, undermined the efforts of other outside countries to interfere equally or moreso, and ultimately botched things on so many levels that that’s why there was a Vietnam War.

I’m sure I’ve mangled it, and my history-minded wife is probably shaking her head and sighing heavily at the number of poor word choices in that paragraph. But hopefully you get the idea from this layman’s terrible précis if you weren’t already a master on the subject yourself. Bottom line: four consecutive Presidents — three Democrat, one Republican — came off looking not-so-great in the Papers, to say nothing of our entire government in general. These ultimately nonpartisan shenanigans were in for a reckoning on the watch of a second Republican, President Richard Nixon, who had the mess land in his lap before he went on to overseeing his own one-President Watergate debacle later on. The film takes great care to mention American interference predated his election by decades, but that he’s the one, for better or worse, left with the job of upholding the integrity of the Office of the President. Such as it was.

So the U.S. government are the bad guys, as they are in four out of five movies and TV shows today because our sinful elected officials make it far too easy for writers to cast them thusly, and the Pentagon Papers are the MacGuffin.

The great and ostensibly powerful New York Times calls first dibs on this groundbreaking story, runs it, and swiftly finds itself swatted hard by The MAN in retaliation. Meanwhile over in D.C., the smaller and comparatively toothless Washington Post believed it had likewise obtained copies of the Papers through its own source, considered sallying forth with the tattered banner of the Fourth Estate, and prepared to publish more of its damaging contents. Not only is the threat of governmental retribution pivoting from the Times toward their direction, but the Post has just now gone public and, in the spotlight of its IPO, faces more conflict from another adversary: its brand new shareholders, some not very thrilled at the prospect of what might or might not be treason.

The Post finds its ultimate tough choices in the hands of its two primary leaders: longtime editor Ben Bradlee (a quasi-crusty Hanks) and publisher Katherine Graham (Streep, in her 85th Best Actress nomination). Bradlee is tough on his underlings, not prone to printing flimsy rumors or gossip, and won’t go forward until he’s certain they’re on solid ground. But when he’s convinced they’re ready, the final yea-or-nay call rests on Graham, a former reporter herself who inherited the Post from her deceased husband, who had taken over from her own father. Graham understood newspaper reporting as a thing of importance, but not until her staff were faced with the chance and obligation to do a Very Important Thing would she adjust to the gravity and steer her focus on upholding the integrity of the office of the publisher. And so it went.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Spielberg’s historical dramas can afford to be overstuffed with entire crowds of familiar faces from all over Hollywood, and The Post is no exception. Prominent cast and roles include:

* The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the researcher who leaked the Papers
* David Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as Ben Bagdikian, the Post‘s man most visibly working their lead on the Papers
* Frequent movie politician Bruce Greenwood looking much older as Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, responsible for the task force that drafted the Papers
* American Horror Story‘s Sarah Paulsen as Bradlee’s Concerned Wife™
* Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) as Graham’s daughter
* Other Post board members, lawyers, and colleagues including Tracy Letts (the dad from Lady Bird), Bradley Whitford (the dad from Get Out), Zach Woods (The Office), Jesse Plemons (Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, that one Black Mirror episode), and an unrecognizable David Cross (Arrested Development).
* Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name, The Shape of Water) as a New York Times colleague of Graham’s
* The predictable yet mandatory MCC shout-out to veterans from The Wire: Deirdre Lovejoy as Bradlee’s secretary; David Costabile (Spielberg’s Lincoln) as Post columnist Art Buchwald; and Neal Huff (Split) as another editor.

Several real personalities from 1971 appear as themselves in archival footage. Nixon himself is seen only from behind through the White House’s windows, and/or in audio re-enactment with the voice of actor Curzon Dobell.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the Story and ethical debates include but are not limited to:

* Crusading Journalism Heroes Rule
* Three Cheers for the First Amendment
* Every prestigious newspaper had to start somewhere
* Sometimes underpaid underlings know what they’re talking about, so maybe don’t be so mean in dismissing them, MISTER Bradlee
* If certain items were illegally obtained, but journalists themselves did nothing illegal to obtain access to them, is it legal or ethical for said journalists to use said items as sources? Or is their very awareness of their nature in itself illegal or unethical?
* What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Newspapering

Joke aside, that last bullet point was the most interesting to me. As the movie tells it, Katherine Graham didn’t ascend to her publisher role as a perfectly formed Strong Female Character all ready to take the world by storm and stack the destroyed corpses of meddlesome men next to her fireplace to use as kindling. At the time of the Papers, Graham is holding down the job but balancing it with her commitments to assorted circles of friends, still holding court with society dinners and soirées and whatnot. As the pressure mounts and consequences grow potentially more dire, Graham begins adjusting her parameters — actively seeks the input of professionals and wise people around her, learning and considering their words so as to better inform her own decision-making processes. Then eventually she starts trampling them one by one. But gently and with gracious manners.

Nitpicking? Before heading to the theater for The Post, I decided it was time to watch Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men, which is rarely rerun on TV due presumably to the multiple F-words. Spielberg had mentioned in pre-release interviews that his film essentially acted a prequel, cemented by the fact that it ends with the Watergate break-in, staged and composed almost identically to Pakula’s take.

I found All the President’s Men at least as enthralling as Spotlight (I would need a second viewing to compare them more in-depth if unfairly) and now I get why it’s a classic. Unfortunately it set my expectations for The Post far too high and made it look sheepishly inferior by comparison. One has Redford and Hoffman doing the hard legwork, digging into the research, conducting the hard interviews, putting themselves at risk, negotiating the back channels, and living through suspenseful times. Apart from some early scenes of sneaky subterfuge, The Post is mostly lots of arguing, numerous scenes of characters barging into each other’s houses to have a word, and so many moments of editors and journalists staring each other down before making their next pronouncement. I’m not opposed to films that are wall-to-wall arguing (see also: Darkest Hour), but table debates are a lot less cinematic than fact-finding detective work, the journalism equivalent of high adventure.

Even more distracting for me: Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. In President’s Men, Jason Robards nailed an indelible performance as the same cantankerous editor, the perfect foil to Woodward and Bernstein’s well-meaning nice guys who needed to be critiqued and lectured and called on the carpet until they thoroughly, indisputably had the story that helped end a presidency. And I can tell Robards nailed it because the real Bradlee is among the interviewees on the Blu-ray extras. Granted, the interviews were conducted decades after the fact, but it’s not hard to tell Bradlee was the curmudgeon Robards was born to play. And Tom Hanks, one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, is no curmudgeon. His attempt at a growly contrarian inflection comes and goes. At his most perturbed, he sounds like a mild-mannered pirate from Cleveland. He’s fine for general authority-figure purposes, but pales in comparison to the real thing and to the more aptly casted version of the real thing.

All told, in its milieu All the President’s Men is Star Wars, and The Post is its Phantom Menace.

So what’s to like? Streep’s performance is dependably remarkable as she portrays Graham’s confidence level gradually building, adapting to an increasingly vital role during some of the most radical tectonic shifts in American political history. She doesn’t start out fully bulldozing macho males like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, nor is she immediately an idealistic role model for all women hoping to follow in her footsteps. That achievement takes effort and earning, and represents another development that Graham has to reconcile in her journey through the publishing process. To an extent I wish Graham had commanded a greater focus, but she has to split screen time with the errand-running and boardroom philosophizing of her predominantly male employees and peers.

Aging newspaper subscribers like me who love words on paper may also appreciate numerous transition shots of the physical newspaper production process. Count on Spielberg to evoke all the right nostalgia with scenes of old-school typesetting and churning printing presses, of important world news bundled and tossed in the early twilight onto newsstand curbsides for disseminating to the masses who needed and wanted to know what was happening in their world, back in an age when current events weren’t herded into separate channels according to preconceived bias filters or conveniently ignored whenever the real world failed to grant our innermost desires for painless, simplistic living. So that was nice.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Post end credits, only a lone dedication: “For Nora Ephron”. The celebrated writer/director passed away in 2012 and made uncredited writing contributions to All the President’s Men, the quality of which appears subject to debate.

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