Friday, February 16, 2018

The Post: The Old Hollywood Machinery

The Post, about how its daring 1971 coverage of the Pentagon Papers put The Washington Post in the front rank of American newspapers, is a newspaper picture with a pedigree. Steven Spielberg, working with his usual team of experts – cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn (working with Sarah Broshar), production designer Rick Carter and composer John Williams – directed from a screenplay that Liz Hannah co-authored with Josh Singer (co-writer of Spotlight). And his cast, headed by Meryl Streep as publisher Kay (Katharine) Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, presents the most impressive collection of character actors, culled from stage, movies and TV, on screen in the past year, all of them working at the top of their game. Bruce Greenwood plays Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary under JFK and LBJ, who ordered the Pentagon Papers, forty-seven volumes that documented the history of White House obfuscation about the Vietnam War; Matthew Rhys (of The Americans) is an uncanny visual match for former Marine Daniel Ellsberg, who, having drafted the study in 1966, brought it to light by having a copy left on the desk of a general assignment reporter at The New York Times. Bob Odenkirk is Ben Bagdikian, assistant managing director for national affairs at The Post, who guesses that Ellsberg – a one-time colleague of his at the RAND Corporation – is the source of the leak and tracks him down so that, when an injunction from Attorney General John Mitchell ties the hands of The Times, preventing it from offering any further coverage, The Post can pick up the ball. Tracy Letts is The Post’s chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe; Bradley Whitford, looking like an old-world southern gentleman in a bow tie, is Arthur Parsons, a composite character based on several Post advisers who discourages Graham from publishing articles about the papers; Jesse Plemons (of Friday Night Lights) is the senior legal counsel for the paper, whose youth amuses Bradlee. Sarah Paulson plays Ben’s sculptor wife Tony. Carrie Coon plays editorial writer (and future editorial page editor) Meg Greenfield and Jessie Mueller is Judith Martin, who, when the main part of the narrative begins, has been denied an invitation to cover presidential daughter Tricia Nixon’s wedding because she crashed Tricia’s older sister Julie’s wedding three years earlier. The ubiquitous Michael Stulhbarg, who also appeared in two other high-profile Christmas-season releases, The Shape of Water and Call Me by Your Name, is Abe Rosenthal, managing editor at The Times. David Constabile and Johanna Day are Graham’s close friends Art and Ann Buchwald.

The movie is a gleaming piece of entertainment – not especially profound but gripping and affecting. It does what Hollywood used to be peerless at but now routinely falls so far short, so that when we see a movie pull it off we feel we’re getting a special treat. Hannah and Singer’s beautifully crafted script overlaps several themes. The most obvious is The Post’s participation in an act of civil disobedience by ignoring Mitchell’s injunction after The Times has been stopped in its tracks, even after it becomes clear that the secret source for both publications’ copies of the papers is the same man. But in order to go ahead with the coverage of the papers, Graham has to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of McNamara, a close friend and an adviser. Up to this point The Post has been a back-rank paper, and indeed as the story begins it’s about to go public. It was begun by Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, who passed it onto his son-in-law, Phil Graham; when he committed suicide in 1963, Kay inherited the job of publisher, for which she was untrained. The paper has always been seen as what it is, a family concern – and the family is long-established Democratic socialites who have counted among their closest friends politicians like McNamara and the Kennedys. So has Ben Bradlee, who has a photo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy on his coffee table. Kay’s têta-à-tête with McNamara – my favorite scene in the film – illuminates for her the necessary tension between a good newspaper and the political players it needs to cover dispassionately. In other words, both editor and publisher have to learn what Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the new editor at The Boston Globe, knows instinctively in Spotlight: that a newspaper works best alone.

The third theme is a feminist one: Kay Graham’s stepping out of the shadows and embracing her role as The Post’s publisher and doing so with confidence. She and Bradlee don’t always share a point of view on how things should go at the paper: she’s uncomfortable with what she calls the “stiletto tone” of some of their news coverage, and early in the movie, over breakfast, she’s inclined to be more accommodating when the White House issues a dictum that Judith Martin not be permitted to cover Julie Nixon’s wedding. (Bradlee’s response is to warn her to “keep your finger out of my eye.”) It’s when she elects to ignore most of her advisers and publish the coverage of the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the injunction that she and Bradlee truly become a team – and she acts on her own conscience and not merely according to the views of others. There are two key scenes, back to back, one between Kay and Tony Bradlee and one between Kay and her daughter Lally (Alison Brie), that develop the idea of Katharine’s professional coming of age. In the second she recalls how people thought about women in important executive roles in the days when Meyer chose Phil and not her to inherit the paper, and she confides in Lally how terrified she’s been of letting everyone down since she had to take over after his death. The movie could do without the scene where a young woman working for the Solicitor General’s office cheers Kay on, on behalf of her brother, who’s fighting in Vietnam, and also on behalf of women everywhere; and it could do without the shot of Kay walking down the steps of the Supreme Court at the end while young and older women look at her admiringly. But generally The Post manages to be rousing without being fatuous.

Generally I don’t think that Spielberg brings out the best in Hanks, but this is a triumphant exception: he gives one of his finest performances as Bradlee, showing sides of him I haven’t seen before: a ruthlessness and Ivy League entitlement that are mixed in with his integrity and his certainty that he’s acting righteously. And after pushing back against almost every piece of acting I’ve seen Streep give over the past several years, I’m delighted to be able to praise this one, which is understated, modulated and quite moving. The Post couldn’t possibly work without what she brings to it, and without her generosity in partnering other members of the ensemble individually in scene after scene. The surprises she and Hanks both spring here are among the movie’s many pleasures.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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