Richard Nixon didn't tweet. He just looked into the TV cameras and lied. Donald Trump doesn't secretly record meetings and telephone conversations. Yet the first thing out of his mouth after James Comey dropped the Michael Flynn bomb last May was a threat that he could prove Comey was fibbing. He had a tape.
As the parallels between 2017 and 1971 piled up, Steven Spielberg had an aha moment. He'd seen a script about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which the White House had attempted to block. The filmmaker noted echoes of Nixon's contempt for the press in the antipathy Trump displayed daily.
Spielberg saw an opportunity to comment on our strange American moment and committed himself to realizing his vision in record time. The 70-year-old announced the project last March, had principal photography under way by June and put the finishing touches on his mix in November. Fast work for a director half his age.
The Post, to be sure, is a notable achievement. With Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep attached from the start, it practically screams "prestige picture." But is it a great one? Not really (as I wrote days before Spielberg's table left the Golden Globe Awards empty-handed).
Hanks throws himself into the role of the gruff, gutsy editor but comes off as Ben Bradlee Lite. As Washington Post heiress Katharine Graham (the country's first female newspaper publisher), Streep is given only two gears. Early on, Graham's unsure of herself. Having taken the reins after her husband's suicide (the true story of their marriage has the makings of a far more exciting film), she relies on her all-male board to run things.
Her moment of truth comes when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaks classified government files to the New York Times. Shortly after the first excerpts appear, Nixon gets a court order to hold the presses. The report commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) revealed that five administrations had lied about U.S. prospects for victory in Vietnam. President after president knew the war was unwinnable but continued sending young Americans to die.
Given what we know, the picture does a reasonable job of generating suspense as Bradlee and his team scramble to get their hands on a copy of the report so the Post can become a player by picking up where the Times left off.
Streep finally gets to shift into noble-risk-taker gear when press time rolls around, and Graham's forced to choose between Bradlee's agenda (print!) and her board's (follow the court order!). It pains me to say it, but, as staged, the movie's penultimate moment is not 100 percent corn-free. Like the film as a whole, it's diminished by dot connecting and self-congratulation.
Hey, Trump brags to North Korea about the size of his nuclear button. Nixon had to be restrained by Henry Kissinger from nuking Hanoi. Any film that reminds audiences a free press is vital because it wields the power to unseat a dangerous president is a welcome one.
Still, I do wish Spielberg hadn't raced to make awards season, left so many of the questions suggested by this rich material incompletely considered, and played fast and loose with history in places. Overall, his latest is competently written, efficiently acted and earnest as all get-out. The fact that it features the 28th score composed for the director by John Williams (a ho-hum one, at that) is emblematic, however. As movies about the role of journalism go, The Post, unfortunately, is old news.