Before All The President’s Men comes The Post. Or maybe that should be: before Watergate came The Pentagon Papers.
Either way, Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a rattling tale about the press holding power to account as Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, decides to face jail and publish the secret files the White House never wanted the public to see.
Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, which gives him more of an everyman likeability than when he was played by Jason Robards way back. Yet Spielberg rightly puts even the iconic Bradlee in the shade, ceding ultimate screen power to Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham who, as publisher of the Post, makes the casting decisions – all the trickier given her friendships with politicians and Presidents, and in particular Robert McNamara, the Defence Secretary behind the revelatory and damning papers.
This is all about Vietnam and how the US government, in a succession of administrations stretching back over 30 years, lied to the public about their chances of winning the War. Spielberg works hard to ramp up just what a big deal this is, using John Williams’ characteristic rumble of strings to underline it.
There’s a lot of wig work here, and thick glasses, so that everyone looks a bit like Elliot Gould or, indeed, Jason Robards. It’s Spielberg “doing” the 70s and, as such, feels rather more staged than natural. There’s one shot, when Graham visits New York for lunch, with an anti-War protest of ‘Nam vets in wheelchairs and hippies strumming guitars and placards of past Presidents with LIAR printed across their faces. It felt half-hearted, peremptory and without Spielberg’s usual craft and attention. We’re talking solid, not inspired.
In a rare mis-step, Hanks struggles with his character. His Bradlee isn’t someone I’d go into battle for, or go to prison for and we’re never really convinced of the “brilliance” of his editorship, nor of the talents of his journalists, not in the way Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made us all want to be one. This lot just smoke incessantly and dress like overfilled ashtrays.
So it’s left to Meryl’s Katharine to inject some life and colour, the only woman at the board table, and of course she does it with redoubtable vigour, although I think the script actually makes her more hesitant than the real Katharine might have been and clumsily gives her grandchildren and a daughter (Alison Brie) to make her more ‘feminine’, I guess. I found it demeaning – Brie is badly served and Meryl doesn’t need that kind of help to deliver a character, especially not one as important and inspirational as Kay Graham.
The film only kicks into gear when we see the newspaper start being put together, the chain of delivery, from typewriter to copy editor, to that suction machine, down to the presses where the hot lead and typesetting take place and the print runs start and the conveyor belts whirr and suddenly the vans are leaving the depot, the kids are chucking bundles off the back of the truck and the eager news stand guys cut open the string and then all over the place everyone’s dumbstruck staring at the front page.
Spielberg has a smooth gift for that sort of thing. His political anger is less persuasive, even though it’s heartening to see a film defending the place of the press in a democracy, to “serve the governed not the governors.”
Nixon growls in shadow through the Oval Office window and we hear his voice on the phone banning The Post from the White House, and of course we’re meant to think of what’s going on now in the same office, with fake news and all that. But for all the film’s modern-day relevance and the smart one-liners about “the first rough draft of history”, it’s all too obvious and too hurried to hit home and influence a new generation.