The news is the first rough draft of history, claims newspaper owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in The Post – but Oscar-bait movies are the other end of the animal, the airbrushed, cleaned-up, polished-to-a-fault look back at history. The past comes alive at this time of year, period settings and historical figures boosting Oscar pretensions through the usual truth-trumps-fiction Hollywood calculus – and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (opening on Thursday) is the main historical figure this year, overshadowing the likes of Ms Graham and her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in Steven Spielberg’s account of the 1971 ‘Pentagon Papers’ case. Still, there’s no doubt about which is the better movie.
The Post is indeed pretty good, especially considering that it aims to (a) promote the cause of modern feminism and (b) take pot-shots at Donald Trump, in addition to speaking quite didactically of free speech and the First Amendment (the Founding Fathers are inevitably name-dropped). It could’ve been shrill but in fact it’s quite subtle, keeping the tone subdued and making its points indirectly (by Spielberg standards). We fully expect, for instance, that Ms. Graham will give a stirring speech on the courtroom steps at the end – but instead she wordlessly descends through the crowd of spectators, the gender composition of the crowd imperceptibly changing till she’s surrounded entirely by young women, a nice visual metaphor for her pioneering role as a female media boss.
Kay doesn’t really give speeches; most of the film finds her being ignored at meetings, treated as a mere society hostess out of her depth by the board of the Washington Post, the paper that used to be run by her father and late husband. The Post isn’t the big national paper it later became (via the Pentagon Papers and, of course, Watergate), more a local rag that’s a bit too chummy with local politicians; Kay is indeed more hostess than publisher, happy to join the other women in the living-room – “This is our cue, ladies” – and talk about fluff while the men stay at the dinner table discussing politics. Even the Pentagon Papers, a series of top-secret documents revealing what successive governments really thought about Vietnam (a kind of early-70s Wikileaks, basically), only land on her desk after the New York Times is barred from publishing – but a decision must be made, even if it means angering the White House and jeopardising the paper’s lucrative public offering.
The decision is taken in a conference call that’s the film’s best scene, precisely because it’s so casual and anti-climactic: Spielberg builds tension, closing in on the various men trying to persuade Ms. Graham – then Streep does one of her giggly-fluttery Streep moments, Kay blurts out “Let’s go!”, then she hangs up abruptly and steps away from the phone as if it were toxic. Like Spotlight a couple of years ago, The Post works best when it shows the workings of journalism (and indeed history) as a series of small unpretentious moments, a case of chasing leads and scribbling to a deadline.
Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar, and The Post may do likewise – yet I’m not so sure. The film seems to lack something in impact, or urgency. The stakes never feel especially high, despite our heroes battling for freedom of the press against a President who is “nothing if not vindictive” (shades of you-know-who). It does often feel like a lesson, with fiery Bradlee asserting that our mission is to “hold them accountable” and Kay pointing out that a profitable paper must invest in “really good reporters” and quality journalism – an obvious dig at our own age of clickbait.
That’s another unspoken angle, the fact that a young person reading that title is much more likely to think of a blog post or Facebook post than the Washington Post. The era described in the movie, the age of newspapers, is ancient history, at least in the style depicted here – the canisters and linotype, the cavernous newsrooms, eager editors rushing down at break of day to buy the first papers from bleary-eyed street vendors.
The Post harks back to a different time, which was also a more civil time (the brief conversation between Bradlee and the man from the Justice Department is a model of courtesy) – and Spielberg responds with one of his mellowest movies, the most typical bit being perhaps the way he shoots Kay and Ben’s first scene together, placing his stars in a long unbroken master and just letting them talk. (Later there’s a couple of high-angle shots to indicate conflict, he standing up and she sitting down; but there’s not that much conflict.) The Post is low-key, sometimes sluggish, probably hard for younger and/or non-American viewers to get excited by – but also touching and very decent, almost too decent for the squalid job of masticating history into Oscar-bait. It could stand to be a little less Pulitzer Prize, and a little more tabloid.