Movie Review: The Post

A look back at the publishing of the Pentagon Papers misses many opportunities

The Post (Akta Pentagon: Skrytá válka)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
With Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Newspapers, and the media in general should be holding governments and corporations responsible for exposing corruption and illegal activity. Lately, the media has been failing in that regard, especially in the US.

But back in the 1970s, the idea was alive and well. Steven Spielberg’s new drama The Post takes us back to when The Washington Post published secret documents showing that the US government had long known that the war in Vietnam could not be won, and other revelations about often illegal activities. The documents became known as the Pentagon Papers.

The timing of the film is good, as it reminds people of what the press could accomplish before the era of fake news, partisan reporting and troll farms.

Most films about investigative reporting focus on the reporters, like All the President’s Men, the 1976 film about the Watergate crisis that toppled President Richard Nixon. The Post spends much of its time with newspaper publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and her struggle to convince everyone that she is in fact in charge of the paper that her father and husband used to own and run.

She was the first woman to run a major newspaper and had a hard time breaking into the boy’s club atmosphere of the era.

Concurrently with the developing story about the Pentagon Papers, Graham is working to prepare a stock offering to raise money to hire more reporters.

A scandal could hurt the stock offering, and publishing government secrets in potential violation of the law could be just that scandal.

Graham and, to a lesser extent, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) are also both friends with some of the people they cover and potentially have to expose to humiliation and even the loss of their careers.

But as a story of female empowerment, The Paper comes off as a bit dated. Streep gives one of her finest portrayals as Graham, and you can see her struggling with all the factors. But the film looks like it could easily have been made in the 1980s or 1990s. It doesn’t take any chances with the material or say anything new about the idea of a woman trying to break out and be taken seriously.

Director Steven Spielberg, at times one of the finest people working behind the camera, does little to create real tension and drama. One could say he is letting the events speak for themselves, but they could talk louder with a bit of help.

The only time the audience can feel the director trying to put his stamp on the film is when Richard Nixon is portrayed only by being seen from the back through a window.

Hanks as the top editor, the same role that was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, gives a solid but not very flashy portrayal. Bob Odenkirk as reported Ben Bagdikian is the one standout in the newsroom cast.

Newsrooms can be rather rough places in terms of language and attitude. The Paper has an oddly sanitized feel.

The film comes off, in the end, as Oscar bait — an effort for all of the people involved to add one more award to their shelves. But the Academy didn’t really fall for it and the film has a paltry two nominations: for Best Picture and Best Actress.

One big criticism of the film is that it was The New York Times and not The Washington Post that broke the story, after months of hard work. The Post came in later, once the basic work was done. The actual content of the Pentagon Papers also is barely scratched.

The softball treatment, in the end, is frustrating. Aside from All the President’s Men, the more recent 2015 film Spotlight, about church cover-ups of molestation, shows the power of investigative reporting more effectively.

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