Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Post (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: While the New York Times publish an article detailing Pentagon papers that show a mass cover-up concerning the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Washington Post is stuck reporting on Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. However, when the government tries to censor the Times from posting any more of their findings, Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) get to work on publishing the findings themselves. However, between the social, ethical and political hurdles involved, it seems that the truth comes with a price.

Streep manages to do a very complex juggling act with this role. She manages to convey her character’s internal conflict concerning what she hopes for the Post as a company, the lengthy work required of her as the only china doll in the journalistic male-dominated bullpen, and her conviction to do the right thing by the American public, all through a particularly understated performance. That is a hell of an accomplishment, even for an actor as lauded as Streep. Hanks continues his Oscar-bait-ready partnership with Spielberg to depict this very stressed and very determined newspaper editor, weaving through the pitfalls in his way to deliver the kind of efficacy that we have long since come to expect from the man.

Bob Odenkirk as one of the main journalists delivers a lot of heart and even some humour to the proceedings, Matthew Rhys makes for a galvanising presence as he lets the sheer impact of the events around him rest on every word he utters, Jesse Plemons as one of the Post’s lawyers fits in nicely, David Cross is straight-up unrecognisable as another of the Post’s journos, same with Alison Brie as Kay’s daughter who shines in a particularly emotional moment between her and Streep, and Michael Stuhlbarg continues his streak as an actor who needs to be kept up-to-date with.

The story as a whole is a definite slow-burn, taking a fair amount of time before we even get to the main crux involving the publishing of the Pentagon papers. A lot of that build-up concerns setting up the Washington Post in its historical context, something that has already raised a few eyebrows concerning its juxtaposition to the New York Times. Me personally, given the #BoycottToSiri discussions that have been taking place over the last few months and the NYT’s involvement in them, I’m personally not shedding any tears at their supposedly diminished role in this particular story. Sorry, but I don’t have much sympathy for those complicit in censorship and the silencing of the dissent of minorities.

Regardless, the way this film sets up the precedent for the Post’s place as the underdog is very well-done, aided by Streep’s performance, the sharp writing courtesy of Liz Hannah and Spotlight co-scribe Josh Singer, and the sheer visual chops on offer through frequent Spielberg cinematographer Janusz KamiƄski. Through a surprisingly lack of exposition, the film establishes Kay Graham’s place within the story, especially the rather bubbling-under-the-surface feminism on display with how her gender factors into the perceptions of others, and even lends credence to how she wanted to do right by her husband who left her the company. This is why the scene between her and Alison Brie is so effective, as it absolutely nails the emotional border that the rest of the film is framed in.

As the steam really starts to build, and the legal and even moral implications regarding the main story start to make themselves known, it follows a similar path to Spotlight in how it shows the methodology of print journalism. However, rather than the rather isolated scope of Spotlight, where the newspaper in question is depicted as the only source that could possibly break this story, this shows a more collectivist mindset. With both the Post and the Times being placed in-sync with each other, despite the reduced presence of one over the other, it shows the game of investigative journalism as far more a matter of public knowledge than simple business. Considering the current fears regarding “Fake News” and the push to make certain outlets more “trusted” than others, we tend to forget that the really important information, the kind that the public needs to be aware of, exists beyond the people voicing it. Freedom of the press has a great many reasons to exist, not the least of which being how badly things can turn out in societies with state-run news monopolies; impartiality is vital in these situations, something you’re not likely to get with the government breathing down your neck to keep things quiet. As good as it is to have another mainstream example of showing Richard Nixon as the colossal asshat that he was, it also helps to frame this story in a more contemporary context. One that is more than a little terrifying in how relevant it is.

History is and always will be cyclical. Even when humanity collectively gets its act together and actually takes lessons from the mistakes of the past, there will always be events and situations that occur and reoccur with somewhat alarming regularity. One of the bigger hurdles when it comes to depicting historical events, particularly those that are relatively close to the release date, is making it feel like this story is worth telling at that exact moment. Of all the (if you’ll pardon the pun) newsworthy events in recent history to bring back into the public consciousness, why this one?

Well, the film actually has several weirdly-specific reasons for that. For a start, we have a depiction of a woman with a certain degree of power through her corporation that had to make her mark in a male-dominated industry. There’s also how the Post is framed as having broke the ice concerning the Pentagon papers, starting a trend that other local papers would follow in unearthing information that had been kept out of the public eye up until that point. There’s quite a bit of #MeToo sentiment to be wrung out of that. To say nothing of the political commentary, making a point to remark that heads of state absolutely should be questioned, especially when dealing with something as historically botched as the Vietnam War. Even over here in Australia, we seem to have a real hesitance to admit that we did not win that particular fight. And then there’s the notion of how challenging freedom of press could set a very nasty precedent as far as journalistic ethos is concerned, something else that is quite relevant right now given the current furore over Fire And Fury. Between all of this, we get a depiction of how even though history tends to repeat itself, there are still lessons from it that need to be taken to heart, lest society ends up in the same unfortunate situation all over again.

All in all, this is yet another brilliant effort from Steven Spielberg, bringing out the timeliness of the story in a way that outclasses a lot of similar Oscar-aspiring fare. The acting is terrific, with Meryl Streep giving one of her best performances, the writing combines contextual accuracy with a willingness to give a few chuckles to make for a very smooth, if occasionally slow, ride, and the direction overall manages to highlight so many different aspects of the story, both in-the-moment and as contemporary minds recollect it, to not only deliver on the tension and drama of the premise but also how important it is to keep these issues of journalistic integrity and authoritarian questioning in mind. Knowing how much chaos went down over the last twelve months, and the very hot-headed reactions to it across the board, it might be worth remembering why certain freedoms exist and why they should continue to do so. We’ve already repeated enough mistakes as a species; let’s at least try and improve going forward.

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