The Post

Steven Spielberg is incapable of making a bad film, but he is certainly capable of making an average film and he’s achieved that with The Post.

It’s maybe not his fault; he’s done the best with the material he’s been given but there are three key reasons not to be cheerful with this film.

Meryl Streep

Streep is easily the finest actress (and with the forced departure of Kevin Spacey, probably actor) of her generation but here, as Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, her performance is irritating, strained, mannered, taut; much of the time she appears to be still channelling Margaret Thatcher – seldom a good move. Part of the problem is that she has little to do and not much in the way of interesting lines – does she publish, does she not publish, does she publish, does she not publish? (Spoiler alert; she publishes). It is hard to see why Streep took the role or why the role was created, unless it was to find a role for female actresses ‘d’un certain age’. She acts for all she’s worth (and she’s worth a lot) and she’s been nominated for an Oscar (as she is for practically every film she’s ever done) but it would be a travesty if she won and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards) didn’t. (Streep won’t win though – you read it here first).

Tom Hanks

Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in Alan J Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men was superb – he acted Ben Bradlee. Here, Hanks is Tom Hanks acting Ben Bradley and his performance gets in the way of the character. He adopts an irritating, broken, growly voice with shades of Robert Peston which may or not be historically accurate but seeks to lend a depth and portentousness to lines which don’t deserve them. Again, he has little to do – will he stick to his principles, his belief in the first amendment and his dislike of Nixon and run with the story? Or will he cave to the pressure from the lawyers in suits (including Jesse Plemons – Todd from Breaking Bad coincidentally) and the threats of Nixon’s stooges and risk going to prison for contempt? The clock ticks towards the midnight deadline (it’s always midnight) when the mighty presses must roll while Graham and the men in suits argue the case. ‘My decision stands,’ she says, ‘and now I’m going to bed.’ (Spoiler alert: he makes the phone call).

The story

All the President’s Men came out in 1975 and depicted events (the investigation by Woodward and Bernstein – Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman – into the burglary at the Watergate centre) from a few years earlier; it was still recent history and told a story that needed to be told and was largely unknown. However, The Post is now old history – it depicts events from almost 50 years ago, another time, another place and the events are just not as interesting, and nor do they have the same resonance. For those of my age (61) who still remember the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War (including Spielberg, Hanks and Streep) there is a residual interest but there is little of interest to attract today’s audience. And in any case, young people (by which I mean anyone under 40) don’t read newspapers, have never seen a type-writer, would find the need to find a phone-box quaint and strange and probably don’t care much about the freedom of the press. And then, the times were different; simpler, clearer, cleaner. They had Daniel Ellsberg; we have Julian Assange. They had a villain in Nixon; we have a clown in Trump. They had Ben Bradlee, we have Piers Morgan, they had Kay Graham who believed in the freedom of the press, we have Rupert Murdoch who believes in the power of the press.

The scenes of hard-drinking, hard-smoking journalists, type-writers being pounded by sweaty, flabby hacks, the paper being type-set, the rolling presses, the grinding, creaking machinery, the papers snatched from the line and checked by a unionised work-force, soon to be ruthlessly swept away (in this country at least) by Murdoch and Eddy Shah (whatever happened to him?) are lovingly pored over by Spielberg, but who now really cares?

Spielberg does his best, but the film lacks any real tension or excitement and in any case the real story of the Pentagon Papers relates to the New York Times which first broke the story. Bob Odenkirk (of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame) as a diligent hack, tracks down the (not very) elusive leaker Daniel Ellsberg with a few phone calls and then knocks on his motel room door to find him surrounded by 4000 unnumbered pages which Odenkirk then flies back to Washington. But the excitement is fleeting.

I suppose if you didn’t know anything about the times depicted you would learn something but it’s not enough. If you want to see a good film about the Washington Post and these times, watch All the President’s Men and if you want to see a good film about the press and its importance, watch State of Play, either the film with Russell Crowe or the original TV series with John Simm.

I was going to avoid any Royal Mail jokes but I can’t resist; miss the post.

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