Depression is weird. You never know when it’s going to hit. Heading over to watch “The Post,” it happened; I went into a deep funk. I shuffled into the theater and took my seat. A trailer for the “Mamma Mia” sequel began to play. My mood worsened. How could “The Post” endure this disposition? But that’s the power of a good movie, I guess, and “The Post” is a good movie. Not great, mind you, but, by the end, not only did it endure my mood, I actually walked out of the theater feeling better, with a bit of hope for humanity restored. It must have done something right.
“The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, dramatizes the Washington Post’s efforts, in the early ‘70s, to acquire and print the Pentagon Papers, a government investigative report into the Vietnam War that revealed the clear, decades long involvement of the United States in Vietnam’s affairs (which was continually denied by the government), and the futility of the ongoing war effort. The release, of course, has legal and ethical ramifications which have to be considered by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the new owner of the Post after her husband’s suicide, as she plans to take the paper public. With the threat of lawsuits and even jail time looming, Kay and the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), butt heads as they wrestle with the release of their explosive exposé.
“The Post” can be a little cheesy. And I lay that directly at Steven Spielberg’s feet. He’s so talented that he can make a movie in his sleep — and sometimes, it feels like he does. Usually not from beginning to end, but there are moments where I feel that he’s so pressed for time, pressed for inspiration, that he lets things go without proper quality control, without giving proper thought to the material.
The movie opens with a brief sojourn into the Vietnam War. The first song we hear on the soundtrack is from Credence Clearwater Revival, whose music seems to soundtrack every Vietnam War movie ever made. I get it. It’s an easy way to set the time and the mood and do it quickly. But it’s also lazy to depend on such a cliché so early in the movie.
Later, in an establishing shot, war demonstrators congregate outside the Washington Post. They’re supposed to be hippies, but it’s like a yuppie’s idea of what they looked like. Most have obvious wigs, and their outfits are too clean, too bright, like they just stepped out of the wardrobe department. The costume design looks like it’s based on a half-hearted viewing of “Woodstock.”
And then they all chant “One, two, three, four, we don’t want this stinkin’ war.” Yes, I’m sure they said “stinking” at those rallies. In an effort to court the coveted “PG-13” rating, the movie sanitizes itself, mirroring the theme park hippies standing outside of the Washington Post. Sometimes, the movie feels like a Disney ride version of the early ‘70s.
But, you know, Spielberg has a fantastic reputation for a reason, and the movie does work, delivering the crackling energy you would expect from a story about a newspaper and its reporters. A simple conversation, for example, between a reporter and a lawyer turns into a suspense sequence as the two slowly realize there might be a legal problem with their story. As their realization seeps in, the editing becomes sharper, quicker, the music louder, and the camera comes closer to the characters, really pushing the importance of the moment, the realization that they might be in big trouble.
The final scene of the movie feels like one of those post credit teasers we get in most Marvel movies these days. With the story finished, we follow a nameless security guard down a dark hallway. He sees a jimmied door and calls into dispatch. On the other side of the door, the camera floats back to reveal black clad thieves rifling through files. As the camera pulls all the way out, we see, of course, that this is all happening in the Watergate Hotel. The only thing missing is a title card that reads, “Ben Bradlee will return in ‘The Watergate’!”
Of course, Spielberg and company could easily make a follow up about the Post’s investigation into the Watergate scandal. And, of course, there already is a famous movie from the ‘70s about that very thing, one that also has Ben Bradlee as a character. “All the President’s Men” features overlapping characters, settings and similar subject matter to “The Post,” yet the two movies couldn’t be more different. “All the President’s Men” is as quiet and observant as “The Post” is busy and explanatory. I’ve seen “All” several times, and I still don’t know what’s going on in some scenes. Exposition is hard to come by. “The Post” on the other hand spells everything out. It would be hard to miss its message. That’s not necessarily a critique. Personally, I do prefer quiet subtext, but sometimes, damn it, I like having everything explained to me. I like a movie with big speeches, where everything in the story connects, where every character is given a moment of glory, where the music swells at just the right moment. But, I rarely think of a movie like that as great. Good, yes, but great has to work on a different, higher level. Great has to have that same emotional impact without being so obvious.
Still “The Post” manages to have some subtext, themes and ideas presented without the film explicitly commenting on them. I liked how often the movie makes a quiet point of showing Kay Graham walking into a room filled with nothing but old white men. A lady in a bright dress crossing over into these man caves filled with monochromatic grey and blue suits, smoke, testosterone, condescension. The feminine “intruding” into the masculine; The new world is coming as she crosses boundaries into the old.
And then there’s a moment where Kay walks out of a courthouse, victorious. Descending the steps, she’s flanked only by women. Their faces turn to her one by one, following her movements like an audience at a tennis match. On the soundtrack, you hear reverent whispers; they’re in complete awe. No, it’s not that subtle, but you could miss it. And the message is made clear without resorting to declaratory statements, without having an extra cry out, “She’s my hero!”
So, maybe the movie is a little overblown, a little self-important. But it works and works well. It just has that classic walking and talking feel (the kind Aaron Sorkin did so well in “The West Wing”) where intelligent people work hard and do good, do what’s right. I enjoy stories like that. And as history repeats itself in an even worse cycle, it’s important to look back at how this has happened before, and it’s important to see, clearly, that we stood up to it and succeeded. In this case, subtlety might be overrated for once.