The Post: Political Oscar Bait

Director Steven Spielberg poses for photographers during a photo call for the film ‘The Post’ in Milan, Italy, Monday, Jan.15, 2018. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep combine to make a political tale about something in the Nixon administration. Predictable? Entirely. Oscar bait? Why else do any of those three work anymore? Insightful? Yes. Entertaining? At times. Politically minded? Annoyingly so.

The Post adds to the long line of Hanks and Spielberg collaborating on projects dating back to Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The two work well together and this film is no exception. Hanks gives a strong and endearing performance that carries much of the movie. He is the best part of the film, in my estimation. Meryl Streep is also excellent and probably has the more complex character, but Hanks has a little more personality in his performance. The two work well together and lift the film from a good set up to an interesting time.

Spielberg’s direction is awesome. The cinematography is pretty, the camera set up works incredibly well, and the film puts you in the 1970’s. It works as an excellent period piece. The sets and costumes are faithful, and all the technicals work incredibly well. John Williams’ score isn’t the draw, but the score highlights the dramatic and intense moments well. All the technicals are handled well.

Unfortunately, it is a slow-paced film. It is a political film, but the slow burn doesn’t pay off. A few changes to a few scene would make the movie more of a thriller. It works well enough, but I checked my watch more than other films. That’s not a good sign for a thriller. Aside from that, the technicals and filmmaking work well enough.

There are a few problems regarding historical accuracy though. First, there is too much emphasis on the Washington Post’s efforts. They’re painted as the driving force behind the publishing of the Pentagon Papers instead of the New York Times. In truth, the Times mostly did the heavy lifting before the Post filled the void left by the Times’ lawsuit. It would be like telling the story of how the Times did the bulk of the Watergate investigation. It’s not quite accurate.

The more interesting historical question is the content of the Papers themselves. Despite being controversial, the Papers have become a classic as defined by Mark Twain: “A book that everyone praises and no one has read.” The stuff that was published doesn’t exactly prove that the war was unwinnable. Most of the report discusses the North Vietnamese invasion of the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail and serves as a good analysis of how the war progressed. The contents are not actually that controversial, despite universal acceptance of how they damned the American effort in Vietnam. The full contents were released in 2011 to the National Archives, so check them out and see if you can find the controversy in them.

The biggest problem with the film is how obvious the political messaging is. The final scene of the movie (spoilers if you aren’t aware of history) is Richard Nixon saying he doesn’t want the Washington Post credentialed anymore followed by a police officer investigating the break-in at Watergate. The intent is to link the Nixon administration to the papers and show how moral and upstanding the press is against the obviously corrupt government. That last point isn’t just a comment on the Nixon administration; Spielberg is also clearly critiquing the Trump administration’s treatment of the press.

First, that’s a false equivalence drawn to point out something the filmmakers don’t like.  Second, it misses the point of making a good political thriller. The film tells people what to think instead of offering a perspective. Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg have all made their political leanings clear. That’s fine, but anything subtle would be better than the film we got. Forcing morals is never effective. Offering your lessons and takes on history can be interesting and convince a viewer to change opinions. Forcing it will only drive prospective audience members away and polarize the culture more. We don’t need more of that.

All that aside, is the film worth a view? Yes. There are interesting questions raised about the role of the press, the relationships between journalists and politicians, and being thrown into a job you never expected. It’s relatable to today’s political and journalistic climate and makes the viewer think about how the news process works. The morals and political themes are a bit too much on the nose for my taste, but I recommend a viewing. The Post will almost certainly receive a few nods for Oscars and I will be shocked if it doesn’t win a few. Should it? I don’t think so. But the film fits the mold of recent Oscar winners and should draw a fistful of nominations.