Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a fake news movie, a true story told phony to further an agenda.
Some viewers won’t notice since Spielberg’s agenda includes defending First Amendment rights, celebrating female empowerment and sticking it to Richard Nixon again. I’m in favor of all three. The first two are especially relevant today.
The Post doesn’t make a compelling case for any of those ideals. Its chief form of persuasion is saintly typecasting: Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine (Kay) Graham and Tom Hanks as irascible editor Ben Bradlee. She dithers her way to unintentional feminism while he squints, grumbling corn like "My God, the fun!" when a tip comes in.
They aren’t the best central characters for a drama about the Pentagon Papers, classified documents leaked in 1971, proving the Vietnam War was a lost cause and presidents before Nixon knew it. The Post pays only cursory attention to the leaker Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and the New York Times, who got the scoop and won in a Supreme Court case alongside the Post.
As a procedural, The Post lacks urgency. Getting scooped by the Times then scrambling to catch up isn’t compelling without an All the President’s Men/Spotlight puzzle to assemble. The Pentagon Papers were 7,000-plus pages of bottom-line duplicity, a smoking gun on each. The Post is simply a question of publishing this information or not; that’s clear-cut before it’s asked.
Kay Graham offers the complexity of which The Post needs more, a woman with power she declines to use until backed into a corner. Streep doesn’t play her as a crusader; twice Kay walks into boardrooms, a lone woman among grim men, making no impression. At dinner parties she joins wives in another room while husbands discuss serious issues. Kay’s social connection to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) becomes a conflict of interest she grows braver in confronting.
Yet Spielberg can’t resist making Kay something more, something modern despite the period setting. In the movie’s phoniest moment, Kay exits the Supreme Court walking through the most unconvincing war protesters since Forrest Gump. Suddenly they’re all young women reverently gazing at Kay, as if hippie chicks in 1971 would admire or even recognize a middle-aged Establishment woman.
Spielberg ends his movie on an odd note, showing Watergate Hotel security guard Frank Wills discovering the "third-rate burglary" that led to All the President’s Men. Maybe Spielberg feels the need to justify The Post: "See? They did get a scoop later and Nixon was guilty." Or thinks he made a movie that good.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.