When the Pentagon Papers, a classified set of documents detailing the ongoing war in Vietnam, were partially printed in The New York Times in 1971, it set off a firestorm in the American political landscape. Here were a set of highly secretive and sensitive documents describing a war that was currently underway, much to the public’s chagrin, possibly putting American lives currently overseas in danger.
But, didn’t The New York Times have an obligation to print it? It was news, and a democracy lives and dies on the altar of the first amendment. However, the subsequent banning of printing that information, and the Washington Post’s internal struggle to print their own piece of the Pentagon Papers, lays the groundwork for Spielberg’s latest opus, “The Post.”
Taking place directly during the apex of the Pentagon Paper event, “The Post” is led by two protagonists, editor in chief Ben Bradlee and Washington D.C. heiress Katharine Graham (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) whose individual plot-lines dovetail and intertwine intermittently during the course of the film as they spar with one another over the monumental decision of printing these sensitive documents in the face of governmental oppression.
Both are veteran actors who need no introduction and they both do fine work, but their performances tend to fall into the realm of caricature at their worst moments. The two of them are surrounded by a supporting cast that any director would die for, including Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, and Alison Brie, amongst others. Only Bob Odenkirk breaks away from the pack as gumshoe reporter Ben Bagdikian, who ends up actually securing the documents from an old source from a previous assignment. And it’s here, in the sheen of Hollywood actors pretending to be real reporters, do the seams securing the film begin to tear apart and become threadbare. These characters act more like mouthpieces than people, pontificating and proselytizing the importance of the first amendment and self-reflexively congratulating one another than actually becoming fully realized characters. The film lacks any real tension or drama because the characters are so flat and politicized; this film’s political climate being remarkably similar to our current one is a parallel it never fails to remind you of.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with wanting to make a political statement within a work of art, but it should emerge naturally from the juxtaposition of narrative elements present in the piece rather than forced down the audience’s collective throat. “All the President’s Men” accomplishes this task beautifully through the detailed sketches of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they uncover Watergate.
“The Post” is, by comparison, an awkward and stilted verisimilitude of what journalism looks like. Scenes of reporting are counterbalanced by artificial monologues on the importance of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Spielberg should have more respect for his audience than to beat them mercilessly over the head with a blunt hammer emblazoned with printer’s ink.
The importance of what these men and women did isn’t up for debate. They set the journalistic precedent for establishing first amendment rights as a newspaper and business, but the film shouldn’t set out to convey that information — that should already be known. Instead, The Post must tell a dramatic story about the process of gathering, crafting and disseminating the information found in these important documents, and it’s here where the film ultimately falls short. It’s not there aren’t sequences of this nature; in fact, there are several, with almost each captured by Spielberg’s famously hidden long-takes. It’s just that each sequences’ power is severely diminished by the long expository “telling” that almost always follows it.
The Post isn’t necessarily a bad film, despite everything I’ve just said about it. It’s more in the fact that it’s ultimately disappointing, given the level of talent present on the project. What could have been a rare and depressingly relevant film painting a struggle for free speech and the first amendment in the presence of a near-tyrannical government is instead just another piece of overtly banal celluloid. The Washington Post’s endeavor for the first amendment is important — the audience already knows that. What the audience needs to know (and where The Post sadly fails) is the human element and human drama that led to that watershed moment in American history.