Published On: Sat, Jan 13th, 2018

“The Post” is Oscar bait, but not necessarily interesting

HERE’S a trick for home cooks who want to impress someone: find out what they like and give them more. Not bigger portions, but more of the good stuff in each dish. Make chocolate cake with extra chocolate, ragu with more meat and apple pie with lots of finely-diced apples and a glug of Calvados.

This is more or less what actors do in a Steven Spielberg film: they play the sorts of characters they are famous for playing, but with intensity turned up to just below “ham”. In “The Post”, Tom Hanks does his hail-fellow-well-met shtick (with an outer layer of crustiness, because he’s Ben Bradlee, a newspaper editor), but with more hailing and more meetings of fellows. Meryl Streep, as usual, is regally vulnerable as Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, but with extra vulnerability in the film’s first half and climactic regality near the end. Matthew Rhys twitches and glowers even more than usual, which distinguishes him from Michael Stuhlbarg, who glowers then twitches. One welcome exception to this rule is Bruce Greenwood, a freakishly great Bob McNamara, with just the right square jaw, slick hair, too-wide smile and frantic oleaginousness.

“The Post” tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret defence-department study of America’s involvement in Vietnam, which Daniel Ellsberg (Mr Rhys), one of the study’s authors, smuggled out and gave to a reporter for the New York Times. Soon after the Times began publishing the papers, Richard Nixon’s administration obtained an injunction forcing them to stop. Mr Ellsberg also gave copies of the Papers to Ben Bagdikian, a Post reporter, who brings them to Bradlee.

Asking a journalist to review this film—or indeed any film in which journalists embody and battle for the nation’s conscience—is a bit like asking a wolf to review a steak. It has to be really bad to wrinkle the reviewer’s nose. This film was not really bad. Plus, it has spirited arguments in newsrooms! Typewriters—and reporters typing while smoking (indoors!) and cursing! Linotype machines, and newsrooms that shake while the paper rolls off of giant industrial printers in the basement! Weenie lawyers and empty-suit business-side guys who confuse cowardice for prudence while the newsroom stands on principle! This is steak with a side of steak for reporters.

But attentive readers may notice a dramatic problem: as well as the actors conveyed apprehensiveness at whether to print the classified material everyone knows what the Post decided to do. When the Nixon administration won an injunction against the Times, Graham’s Post, not a target of the injunction, stepped into the breach and published. In New York Times Co v United States, the Supreme Court propounded a broad and robust reading of the First Amendment (a decision that probably bothers the current occupant of the White House almost as much as it irked Nixon).

The role of the Post conveniently lets Mr Spielberg put Katharine Graham at the film’s dramatic centre. Graham’s father bought the Post at auction in 1933, and left it to her husband, who was bipolar and killed himself in 1963. Graham thus became publisher by accident, as Ms Streep notes, at the age of 45, having never before held a job. Hence the story of her decision—and the film, to its credit, leaves no doubt over whose decision it was—to publish is also the story of her growing into her role as chief executive of one of the world’s most important newspapers.

Ms Streep pulls off this transition perfectly, without a wrong note: her apprehension at a board meeting at the film’s outset is just as credible as her take-charge moment near the end. She manages to make even the film’s corniest scenes touching. The feminism of the film is perfectly timed to the #metoo moment—far more, in any case, than to the Trump presidency. Mr Trump has all of Nixon’s shabby venality, vindictiveness and contempt for the press, but none of his predecessor’s competence. On Tuesday Mr Trump threatened, as he had on the campaign trail, to tighten America’s libel laws. How he will do that in the face of the Supreme Court’s robust defence of the first amendment remains a mystery—probably to him as much as to anyone else.

“The Post” is Oscar bait. But is it good? Well, it’s a like a gripping episode of “This American Life”, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri or a new album from The National: an expertly-made cultural product by an approved artist that is interesting in all the right predictable ways, which is to say not really interesting at all, but comforting in a public-radio book-interview sort of way. There’s nothing wrong with that. People go to “Star Wars” to see spaceships and light-sabres and heroes wrestling with the dark side. People go to “The Post” to see decent people wrestling with tough problems. They go to both to see the good guys win.

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“The Post” is Oscar bait, but not necessarily interesting