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A Reassuring Movie for Unresolved Times

The Post is a stirring but conventional film depicting a universe far removed from our present cultural confusion.

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Jan 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Not so long ago, the future of traditional media wasn’t looking great. Newspapers were slashing staff, dropping print editions, or simply folding up shop and slinking off into the night. There was blood in the water, and giant corporations were circling, eager to devour smaller papers, and cough up the broken bloody bones.

But, weirdly enough, journalism has found its teeth again, and is biting back. “Ow!” said the rich and the powerful, as stories and op-eds spilled out. From Weinstein to Trump, journalism has seemingly rediscovered its purpose, bounding forth to savage the serial predators, the public masturbators, and occasionally some boneheaded celebrity who wore the wrong pin.

If the ongoing coverage is any indicator, something fundamental has shifted. Call it a watershed moment, and perhaps a Watergate one as well.

It is a fitting time for a new film from old Stevie Spielberg to enter theatres. Almost too fitting. The Post outlines one of the infamous of journalistic bite-backs: The Pentagon Papers and the people who chose to publish them.

The year is 1971. The Vietnam War is raging away, and Tricky Dicky Nixon is camped out in the White House, muttering and grumbling to himself. Women are largely consigned to the sidelines of power, and newspapers are at their height, full of men, smoking and hammering away on typewriters, cigarettes dangling on the edge of their lips, about to leap into a pool of ash. Anyone with a fetish for the newsrooms of old will be in Nirvana at this brash, loud, clacking, yelling atmosphere, pungent with old smoke, and fresh sweat. Spielberg knows how to set a scene, and he positively revels in the physical details. From the white-hot glare of fluorescent lights, to tepid cups of greyish coffee littered about. It is a fun, and occasionally insanely exciting, place to be, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows full well. With his sleeves pushed high, and an edge of manic glee lifting up the corners of his mouth, Hanks portrays Bradlee as a swashbuckling muckraker. All he is missing is an eye-patch and a parrot.

But before we get to the piratical ethos of getting the scoop and sailing away, some context must be established. The story begins in the steaming green hell of Vietnam, with a reporter tip-tapping away on his typewriter, as American G.I.s wander by in the background asking: “Who’s the hippy?” The answer of course, is wee Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), embedded with the troops and reporting on American progress, or lack thereof in the Vietnam War. As Ellsberg witnesses soldiers getting blown to smithereens, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) full of Brylcreem slickness, maintains that everything is proceeding according to plan. The disjunction between the real and the reported is too much for Ellsberg, and he goes rogue, liberating reams of secret government documents and placing them in the hands of reporters at the New York Times.

The stage is set, the actors have their lines, and now the drama can unfold, which it does at a full gallop.

New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan broke the story, while the Washington Post was printing reports about Tricia Nixon’s wedding. But when the government ordered The Times to suspend publication in the name of national security, the Post sensed an opportunity and swooped in for the steal. The rest, as they say, is history. But of course, it wasn’t nearly that simple.

At the centre of the drama were two people: The Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee and the paper’s publisher Katherine “Kay” Graham. Graham, born and raised in insane privilege and social position, had inherited the paper when her husband Philip Graham, committed suicide. The torturous story of Kay Graham’s marriage (infidelity, abuse, and mental illness) warrants its own telling, but that’s a film for another day. When we first meet Graham, she is preparing to take her paper public and is surrounded on all sides by male advisers eager to tell her what to do.

Streep’s impersonation is not dissimilar to the many powerful women she has already embodied from Julia Child to Margaret Thatcher. Her version of Graham, right down to the bouffant hairdo and wafting manner, recalls both of these earlier roles. Depending on whom you listen to, Kay Graham was either a nice lady who inherited a newspaper and did good things, or she was a shark, as vicious and cutthroat as any male publisher. The truth is probably somewhere between these two. Streep plays her as faintly addled, hemming and hawing, bedecked in enormous white and gold caftans. But beneath all that diaphanous material, lurked a spine of steel, and a canny ability to see the big picture.

It is interesting that the film so beautifully intersects with the current cultural moment, from the attacks on free speech, to women asserting their power and stepping up. Really, you couldn’t have scripted this shit better if you were Steven Spielberg.

And of course, Spielberg knows how to make the most of the story. Certainly, the film is conventional, and somewhat square in its construction, but it attacks the material with heart-pounding montages of hot lead typesetting, and burly men hurling bundles of newspapers from the back of trucks in the predawn hours. These scenes are almost erotic in their intensity, and they do precisely what they are meant to do, stir up your juices and sweep you into the great heft of history. It is hard to resist such a bravura display of nostalgia and skill bound up together in passionate embrace, so let the thing go right up your hoop skirt.

It’s only in the post-coital moment, après-film when your rational mind can reassert itself and ask a few more pointed questions.

Many reviews of The Post cite its pertinence, but here is where problems arise. In the film, history has already assigned clear titles to the good guys (courageous journalists!) and bad guys (Booo!! Nixon) but right here, right now, things are considerably more muddy, despite all the Oprah for President speeches and the Time’s Up! buttons. That would be nice, but, humans being human means that nothing is hard and fast. Everyone has done some shitty thing in their past that they would like to forget. I cite, as an example, a story that broke out in the last few days about an upcoming article in Harper’s Magazine.

The decision to reveal the identity of the woman behind the Google document entitled Shitty Media Men sparked something of a firestorm. A recent piece in the Atlantic outlined some of the complexities of the story. To be perfectly frank, I am still a little unclear on exactly what is happening, with writers threatening to pull their pieces from Harper’s, and other folk undertaking an “I am Spartacus” action to protect the woman who first originated and shared the document.

The article in Harper’s Magazine has not even been published, but already writer Katie Roiphe is persona non grata in Twitter circles. A female Judas, or as one writer tartly asked, “What do you do when the call is coming from inside the house?” The very world that The Post celebrates, journalism and media, is the one fingered here. And as the debate continues to erupt, it is interesting to look at this current story alongside the historical one depicted in Spielberg’s film.

The Post is a reassuring piece of conventional cinema, but it comes at a moment when nothing is clear anymore. Which, oddly enough, may be its biggest strength. You have to remind yourself that the real folk in the centre of the story were acting without the benefit of history, making decisions and facing the consequences without knowing what would happen. Would they go to jail? Would Nixon eat their babies? Would the paper end, and the story die on the page. We punters, in the audience, can rest assured knowing that it would all work out. But no one knew that at the time. It is interesting to read Katharine Graham’s memoir, and see this level of uncertainty right on the page.

It is not easy to pipe up in real life, in the middle of a meeting, or a social setting, when people are muttering away about how no one can even make a joke anymore. Comedian Dave Chappelle wandered right into the middle of the raging tidal shift with two recent comedy specials, and was roundly critiqued for his efforts.

Really, there is so much sound and fury lately that half the time I don’t even know what I think about most things. The recent Golden Globe Awards Show was only the most recent indicator that the times are different, and no one quite knows which direction history will flow in, as women find their collective voice, and men try to navigate the new terrain of what is and isn’t acceptable in the #MeToo moment. Shitty Media Men is simply the most recent thing on the teetering poo pile.

It is an age of uncertainty, and if you’re not feeling ambivalent, or at the least a bit odd, maybe you’re a robot or in a coma. I wanted to feel transported by Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes, and to a certain extent I did, but there’s some part of me that resisted. In the same way that it resisted the easy pleasures of Spielbergian sentiment. Maybe because celebrity, of whatever variety, feels like it is not to be trusted at the moment. Neither Donald, nor Oprah or Meryl Streep.

But…This moment of ambiguity has precipitated a number of fascinating conversations with real people (friends, colleagues and family members) about what exactly it all means. And where we go from here.

Will the backlash suck us into some new dark age, or will a sparkling new paradigm emerge, wreathed in silver equanimity and trumpeting change?

That’s the thing about history, it’s not over yet, or as Faulkner once quipped: “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.

Swap out past for The Post, and it still works.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Film

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