The Post is Steven Spielbrg’s Oscar nominated feature about plucky whistleblowers and a free press standing up to a bully in the whitehouse. Set in 1971, the story hinges on the dilemma faced by the proprietor of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks): should they safeguard the commercial future of her newspaper, or risk ruin by daring to defy the Government and publish classified documents abvout the Vietnam war? The parallells to the Trump administration are made clear and presumably for this reason Spielberg was in a hurry to make the film: principal photography began in May 2017 and the movie was finished by November – no mean feat. The result has all the familiar hallmarks of a Spielberg film: high production values, pacy, well-acted, heroic, sentimental, shaped by the inevitable John Williams score. It’s an enjoyable ride about an interesting moment in North American history – but what intrigued me most about the film was how quaint it feels.
The impeccable period detail, the costumes, the interiors, the palette of colours (The Post was shot on 35ml film to achieve a more muted look), the choreagraphed camera movements through the news room – it all felt a bit, well, choreagraphed. But most of all, although the moral of the story is that the press should serve ‘the governed not the government’ the governed are nowhere to be seen. The film inhabits the patrician world that Katherine Graham hailed from: a world of wealth and privilege, of old money, of suits and ballgowns and cocktails.
There’s a great moment early in the film where a young woman in hippy regalia walks into the press room and you suddenly remember it is 1971 not 1950. But the sense that radical social change threatens the anachronistic values of the Establishment is never pursued. Nor is there any mention or consideration of the 3.4 million Vietnamese who died in the war: ‘Nam’ is only concieved of as a graveyard for American boys. Instead the film focuses on the personal. Meryl Streep’s understated performance brings depth and pathos to the role of Graham, as she negotiates her way with the powerful men who surround her. But the revelation that successive administrations have lied about the war is played as a personal betrayal rather than a watershed moment of disillusion, and so the homilies about press freedom are made in a vacuum. All in all – gender politics aside – The Post feels less contemporary than that other film about The Washington Post All the President’s Men – which was made more than 40 years ago. Spielberg’s aspiration, to uphold the freedom of the press, is honourable enough. But his nostalgia, his portrait of an America that is fundamentally decent, kind and just, makes The Post – arguably his most political film – a curiously naive and a-political affair.