Monday, February 5, 2018
To Protect That Legacy
No matter how much time goes by, we still find ourselves trying to impress certain people. Even when they’re out of our lives, even when they’re already gone. Nora Ephron worked with both stars of THE POST over the years in addition to being friends with director Steven Spielberg, so the film’s dedication to her at the end can be easily explained, particularly since it involves a world she knew all too well. But I also wonder if among those other reasons Spielberg was paying tribute because he wanted to make a film Ephron would have approved of, not just shake her head condescendingly wondering why he was wasting his time with this or that, the sort of things that the New York literary elite would have brushed aside. I take some comfort in this possibility, the idea that even Steven Spielberg wants to be invited to the smart kids’ table. Or maybe he wants to do what he can to insure that other people will actually be sitting at that table in the future. After all, these days it’s looking a little iffy. THE POST is about this but it’s also about how the past matters, both in the big ways that shaped our lives which we need to remember as well as the little details that once made up pieces of the world but no longer exist. Those things meant something and were maybe more important than we ever paid attention to. And once we stop paying attention, that’s the ballgame. Of course, THE POST is also about moving beyond the past but more importantly it’s about saying Fuck You to certain people who want to do away with such ideals, which right now is an entirely warranted response as well. It could have even shouted that a little louder, as far as I’m concerned.
Just as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is about to place her paper on the NYSE, classified documents that were part of a Pentagon Vietnam study smuggled out of the Rand Corporation by Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) appear in The New York Times. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is immediately envious, always looking for something to get in the paper and when the Times comes under injunction the chance to run more findings in the Post is too good to be true. So when the documents are secured from Ellsberg thanks to Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Bradlee is determined to go to press immediately but when board members try to argue against it out of fear of what this could mean for the paper legally in addition to jeopardizing the impending IPO, Kay Graham has to decide which side she’s really going to be on and what sort of newspaper she wants this to be.
Katharine Graham wakes up with a jolt at the beginning of THE POST as if from a bad dream, just like many of us have been doing for the past few years now. Going from a nightmare into a nightmare. Graham doesn’t appear at all in the film of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, of course, not counting the somewhat crass reference to her courtesy of John Mitchell and it’s a safe bet people viewing that film for the first time in recent years might not know the significance of this “Mrs. Graham” they’re talking about, the one Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee doesn’t want a certain reference to in a family newspaper. William Goldman, interviewed in the book “The Craft of the Screenwriter”, confirmed that there was a scene featuring Graham in his screenplay at one point, with the role possibly to be played by Alexis Smith, but he was a little in the dark as to why it wasn’t used. Certainly the film was already long with a lot of dates and names to keep track of but it does sound like a good opportunity for a star cameo to put a spotlight on this particularly important figure who did play a role in the proceedings. So as it is ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, which plays in the film as about as perfect a screenplay as you can imagine, will in some ways always be thought of through certain images—Woodward & Bernstein walking through the newsroom, Deep Throat in that empty parking garage in the middle of the night, watching TV in Ben Bradlee’s office—specifically, images that involve the men who were in the middle of the story. Watching it in 2018 is a reminder that the women in the film are there to either be flirted with or get answers from, none of them with the power to actually do anything about Nixon. And suddenly it’s hard not to think about the key figure missing from that perfect film.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and by now famously a spec script by Hannah that sold only days before the 2016 election, it’s very possible that over time THE POST will retreat to the shadow of that other film although if the worst thing you can say about something is “it’s not as good as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” then maybe that’s not so bad. It’s certainly much more of a character piece, focusing on Katharine Graham who as the film sees it is a woman who has always willingly been a mere observer being kept off to the side where the women in that world are supposed to remain but is now being forced into finally taking action. So while the importance of the Pentagon Papers is greater than simple McGuffin and the film doesn’t ignore the fault of previous administrations before Nixon came along, even if he is the big game, the focus of THE POST remains elsewhere, whether a reminder of the first amendment or the state of women’s liberation in 1971 as Katharine Graham’s awareness of what was around her finally began to take shape, always keeping the character beats up front.
The tight timeframe gives the story a focus and while Spielberg doesn’t direct this in the style of a 70s film, not like Fincher went full Pakula with ZODIAC, he uses his own camera-heavy approach to focus on the analog details that were everywhere at the time, down to the typewriters and rotary phones, the way Bob Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian begins to reach out to that pneumatic chute as the edited story is sent off to press or even when he fumbles for change at the pay phone when he leaves the office to make an important call (I like when he has to call back from another line and uses the pay phone furthest down in the row). It’s a film about the impulse of chasing the story just as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN was about the cool, careful intellect of the process. In directing that film, Alan J. Pakula was always methodical in his framing even when things moved, whether those long dolly shots across the newsroom or the gradual zoom into Redford during the legendary Dahlberg phone call. Spielberg is a little more freewheeling, moving the camera everywhere at times, moving the actors into the shot together, following them as if he knows at certain times that they don’t want to be followed. Mixed in with the continually sharp dialogue there’s a looseness to even small moments of the sort that hasn’t been felt in any Spielberg film in decades, maybe not since one of the films he actually made in the 70s; there are a few beats where it almost feels like he decided not to go for another take with more precise timing, instead keeping in a little of the messiness that’s bound to happen against such a tight deadline. The details often feel tangible particularly in the Post newsroom even if there are times when the settings, both interior and exterior, almost have an overly shellacked feel (this also goes for Michael Stuhlbarg’s heavily made-up look as Abe Rosenthal) as if to give the appearance that the whole thing was shot on a studio lot, which it really wasn’t, with even the various newspapers handled by everyone throughout look a little too neatly pressed even if they are meant to be freshly printed.
Still, the speed helps even if Spielberg gets a little too broad with his staging at times such as the reporters peering into a box with the Pentagon Papers as if it contained the Sankara Stones. As seriously as he takes the issues he still can’t quite repress how much he responds to the boys’ adventure aspects of chasing the story so he clearly identifies with Bradlee and Bagdikian and Ellsberg and the interns from both the Times and the Post running through the streets; even when the Post intern arrives at the gates of the holy goddamn New York Times it’s hard not to think of the young Spielberg sneaking onto the Universal lot long ago. In comparison, the portrayal of Katharine Graham’s rarified world of parties and dinners at Art Buchwald’s house is kept at more of a distance even if her awakening is where the real conflict is, sprouting from the theoretical debate with Ben Bradlee over how they’re going to run the place which up until now has just been a casual series of debates, laughing over their own disagreements. That’s what the focus really is more than the subject of Vietnam and the papers (THE PAPERS was actually the title at one point; hard not to wish they could have come up with something that had a little more pizazz) which answers the question of why it’s not a film that focuses on The New York Times, which did after all publish them first. Some reports have the Times as not being too thrilled by all this, but I’m not so crazy about certain articles they’ve run lately so that doesn’t concern me. The point is to pay attention to the past as more than just photos hanging on a mantle, to remember the potential folly of playing it safe and ignoring what the real purpose of a place like this is. To make sure the people know.
When we’re in the offices of the Washington Post or going over the papers in Ben Bradlee’s townhouse with that rush of putting together the story in the air the film is at its best. Just as we saw at the start with Ellsberg beginning his report after witnessing combat up close, it’s the typewriter as weapon, even if some people type faster than others, and these scenes are good enough to overshadow the weaker points. As prologues without any of the main characters go at least the opening Vietnam sequence is short and to the point but (a) it’s a little extraneous, an attempt to shoehorn action into a talky piece (b) the use of “Green River” probably breaks some sort of cinematic law and (c) it was shot at the SUNY Purchase campus (not far from White Plains, where the Washington Post offices were filmed) and some things simply can’t be forgiven. And while Bradlee’s daughter selling lemonade to the other reporters gives us the exchange “What kind of lemonade?” “The one with the lemons in it.” as a reminder that sometimes the answer to what you’re searching for is pretty obvious, the cuteness still feels shoehorned in. Besides, Kay Graham’s granddaughter turns up in an earlier scene and it’s probably for the best to stop at only one cute kid in your Nixon movie. Graham’s big scene with her grown daughter Lally (Alison Brie, who for some reason I didn’t even recognize on my first viewing but she catches just the right east coast country club vibe) is also a little too obvious in its insistence of nobility but it’s still about a woman finally realizing the sort of person she’s supposed to be it’s also about the concept of grace and giving consideration to how we should approach such things in life. The willingness to being open to the challenge of what’s to come. To the very idea of thought.
So I get why some of these scenes are there even if it’s not how I would do it. There are still moments like the relaxed vibe of the early Bradlee-Graham breakfast and the way Spielberg holds this shot, making a few slight moves, for over three minutes which these days is the sort of directorial choice that deserves a medal. And not only does the second hour play beautifully at times as the debate of whether to go with the story escalates, all the activity showing in detail the actual physical process of putting together the paper and running it through the press is so lovingly shot that it almost qualifies as porn for anyone who cares about this tribute. And it is a tribute just as Graham asks Bradlee “What’s next?” at one point presumably as an Aaron Sorkin shoutout and though a TV is spotted playing Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY (Dassin was blacklisted, which seems mildly pertinent in a film involving Nixon) I can’t help but wish Spielberg had gone with a film directed by Sam Fuller, something he’s actually done before, and THE POST seems designed to run on a double bill with his great journalistic history lesson PARK ROW anyway. Or maybe SHOCK CORRIDOR would have been the correct parallel to draw for what it’s like covering Washington these days. There’s a lot to be cynical about when dealing in this world but it’s not in Spielberg’s wiring; he knows that the darkness in the world is there, he’s not that naïve, but actually presenting such things can force him to bend over backwards, going against the pureness of his cinematic nature. The score by the 85 year-old John Williams helps immeasurably with this balance, bringing to it a mixture of the sense of conspiracy from his Oliver Stone scores with the insistence of the deadline and the optimism that there might be some light to come out of all this. When the press run finally begins what he does there is glorious. Even a few of the source cues by Williams that can be heard on the soundtrack album feel like he’s inserted some amusing pastiche of easy listening tunes circa ’71 and more than that clumsy placement of Creedence Clearwater Revival at the start, he remembers what was in the air then which in itself provides an invaluable sense of texture to that part of history.
Because what is right is so clear to anyone watching it’s maybe not the most layered conflict Spielberg has ever dealt with but he has other fish to fry anyway and the film isn’t even looking to impugn anyone we don’t already know about—Bradley Whitford as Post board member “Arthur Parsons” is playing a composite, I imagine to protect the guilty and his overall condescension towards Graham is probably given one overly broad dismissive of women line of dialogue too many in this quasi-MAD MEN world but right now at a time when it seems to have been spiraling into outright hatred of women maybe it’s not really that much. The phrase “arguments on both sides” even turns up in one debate of whether or not to run the story, as if to remind us of just how repellent such a phrase sounds right now. I’m all for the message and because of the people involved this is the sort of film I was hoping might be my favorite of the year and, well, it’s pretty good. If anything, it’s a reminder of how Spielberg is one of the best at staging the simple art of people talking and how he stages them in relation to each other but it’s also a film meant to get us to cheer, a passion play designed for anyone who believes in what’s being stated so clearly, anyone appalled by what’s going on in the world now. We know that Kay Graham is going to do the right thing, we just need to hear her say it, we desperately need to hear those reasons and why this matters. And it’s not going to happen in the real world at the moment so at least it’ll happen here. The portrayal of Graham feels like a combination of elements of the real person, all the Streep tics that we can catalog and a little of Hillary for that matter which also feels right for the moment; a certain shot involving her near the end is probably a step too far but right now I’m willing to let it slide. Come to think of it, Katharine Graham is seen waking up twice in the film. The first time she’s uncertain of everything around her. The second time she’s ready. It’s a reminder that sleep isn’t always so easy these days but it’s also telling us that eventually we need to wake up.
It may be true these days that one of the things you're going to say about a Meryl Streep performance these days is how she gives what is very much a Meryl Streep performance but she still controls each scene here with the preciseness found in every moment as Graham navigates her world, considering the colleagues who may or may not be with her in this as her initial hesitation builds up into absolute certainty. Even down to the silent moments like when she quietly registers the news Abe Rosenthal is receiving about the injunction against the Times, she builds her performance as Graham into someone ready to make the decisions she does. Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee slightly takes a backseat to her which is perfectly fine and he’s clearly enjoying himself playing a guy who’s enjoying himself loving nothing more than chasing the story and how much he lives for this while bouncing off Street in their scenes together. He seems to love playing out scenes with all the actors in the film as he commands the room, working off their own rhythms and relaxing into the portrayal with the confidence that he’s the one in charge. Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife gets her one big speech about how brave Kay is which seems deliberately placed as if she’s the heir apparent to Streep herself while Bob Odenkirk plays each moment like his entire life has been building up to this story so that simple “Yeah…” when Ellsberg asks him if they’re publishing the papers speaks volumes. Damn, Odenkirk is good in this. It’s a very strong cast, no surprise, with each of the major supporting players getting their moments including Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Zach Woods and Jesse Plemons.
The past matters. The ghosts of stay with us as we learn from them, realize what we did wrong and, by a certain point, try to understand how much we need to improve. And maybe some sort of acceptance can come out of those regrets so we can move on. Because you can’t stay in the past, after all, no matter how much you want to. THE POST tries to remember this in its insistence that the truth never gets buried but although the necessary message gets across it never really probes deeper beyond the page one headlines, to use the parlance of the subgenre. The final moments even offer the reminder of the real life sequel still to come, essentially going with the ROGUE ONE ending to send things out on an anticipatory beat as the end credits roll and it’s kind of cool but still gimmicky enough that it dilutes the message a little. Although it also works as a reminder that the next big thing is coming, it always is. And maybe when it does something good may come of it and you’ll wind up impressing the right person if you’re ready. It’s a long shot, one that these days seems to be getting longer all the time. But I guess you never know.