Friday, January 19, 2018

The Post: Fast-breaking drama

The Post (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for profanity and brief war violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.19.18

Although Steven Spielberg’s riveting new film gets most of its dramatic heft from the democracy-threatening events that swirled around the release of the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971, we’re most emotionally involved with the plight of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham: at the time, the only woman in a position of power at a major national newspaper.

The entire Washington Post editorial staff — including executive editor Ben Bradlee and
publisher Katharine Graham (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, third and fourth from left) —
reacts with stunned silence after learning that The New York Times has been forced, by
a federal injunction, to cease reporting on the Pentagon Papers.
As the film begins, and as we’re introduced to Graham via Meryl Streep’s thoroughly engaging performance, the poor woman is hopelessly — helplessly — out of her depth.

We spend almost the entire film waiting for her epiphany, and for the “Meryl Streep moment” when the actress — Graham finally having found her spine — verbally eviscerates one of her patronizing male colleagues.

It’s a long wait ... and well worth the anticipation.

The Post isn’t opportune merely as a reminder — at a time when the White House is occupied by an infantile gadfly who defends his lies by screaming “Fake news!” — of the crucial role played by our Fourth Estate. Scripters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer couldn’t have known, as their film was being shaped, that its parallel focus on Graham would resonate so well at a moment when American women have risen en masse to challenge male hegemony.

The resulting drama serves both mindsets, while also taking its place alongside top-drawer journalism dramas such as All the President’s Men and Spotlight (the latter having brought Singer — also a veteran of TV’s West Wing — an Academy Award).

The sequence of events taking place during just a few days in the early summer of 1971 almost defy credibility. The film opens on a sidebar issue, as Graham prepares for a presentation to The Washington Post Company board of directors, in anticipation of raising badly needed capital via a stock offering when the paper goes public, on June 15.

Streep’s Graham is nervous and flustered, despite having solid notes prepared with the assistance of longtime friend and confidant Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts, nicely understated), a former Wall Street lawyer and chairman of the board. Even before knowing anything about this woman, we feel for her; Streep makes her anxiety palpable.

We therefore groan inwardly, when — her moment having come — she’s too tongue-tied even to speak, and her carefully prepared details are introduced by Fritz.

This is before Graham learns, a few days later, that the stock offering could be scuttled by her paper’s growing involvement in the nation-shattering spat between Richard Nixon and The New York Times: the first time, in the history of the republic, that a U.S. president has attempted to silence a national newspaper.

Spielberg’s film progresses smoothly from the board meeting to the Post newsroom, where executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his top colleagues have become convinced that veteran Times reporter Neil Sheehan, his byline having been absent for awhile, must be chasing something huge. This suspicion proves accurate on June 13, when Sheehan begins a series of damning articles about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Sheehan’s source is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst and activist who, as an employee of the RAND Corp., had worked on a massive U.S. Department of Defense history of its activities in Vietnam; he therefore learned of the jaw-dropping degree to which such activities had been shielded from the public, the press and even other government entities.

Rhys plays Ellsberg as a quiet, back-room wonk who simply cannot carry the burden of this knowledge by himself, and thus becomes a high-level whistle-blower.

(How his activities here are viewed — alongside those by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — obviously depends on which side of the political spectrum one occupies. But there’s an important distinction in Ellsberg’s case, which isn’t part of this film’s narrative: He voluntarily surrendered to authorities on June 28, admitted having leaked the papers to the press, and acknowledged being “prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”)

Nixon’s response is swift: With the help of Attorney Gen. John N. Mitchell, a federal court injunction forces The Times to cease publication on June 15, after three articles.

Bradlee, meanwhile, has an ace in the hole: His assistant manager editor, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), recalls Ellsberg — and particularly his political sensibilities — from their days as colleagues at RAND. If Ellsberg is the source, and if Bagdikian can track him down and get him to share the Pentagon study, and if the argument can be made that the do-not-publish injunction applies solely to The Times...

A lot of “ifs.” Not the least of which is whether Graham, her attention understandably held by the pending stock debut, will allow Bradlee to proceed.

For the most part, Spielberg’s film lacks the late-night, cloak-and-dagger intrigue that scripter William Goldman delivered so well in 1976’s All the President’s Men. That said, Spielberg, his scripters and editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn nonetheless elicit considerable suspense from both Bagdikian’s investigation, and the clash between fiscal prudence and civic responsibility that develops between Graham and Bradlee.

The entire situation is far outside Graham’s comfort zone. Streep portrays her as the ultimate D.C. society matron, known mostly for hosting lavish parties with high-profile guests, many of them — notably Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) — longtime friends. Traveling down the path that Bradlee encourages would mean betraying people who’ve shared her dinner table.

Streep radiates worry and anxiety; we groan (again!) as Graham repeatedly seeks advice from the likes of Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford, suitably arrogant), one of her most condescending — and conservative — board members. But despite this, we also see the spark that ignites in Graham’s eyes: initially unnurtured, but never allowed to wink out completely. This character’s evolution is fascinating.

Hanks, despite his rumpled exterior, no-nonsense manner and droll Baaas-tun accent, doesn’t give Bradlee the crusty verisimilitude that Jason Robards brought to the same role, in All the President’s Men (winning an Oscar in the process). Hanks is a bit too laid-back, and simply doesn’t inspire as a forceful journalistic crusader.

That said, his numerous exchanges with Streep’s Graham are thoroughly absorbing, as both actors push, prod, thrust and parry with details, options and mitigating circumstances.

Hanks also shares a warm and thoughtful heart-to-heart with Sarah Paulson, well cast as Bradlee’s perceptive wife, Tony.

The supporting Post newsroom players are solid and thoroughly credible, starting with Odenkirk’s dogged Bagdikian, and including David Cross (as Howard Simons), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts), Carrie Coon (Meg Greenfield) and John Rue (Gene Patterson).

Curzon Dobell’s almost off-camera portrayal of Nixon — glimpsed solely from a distance, via one of the windows looking into the Oval Office — is an understated hoot, particularly as the president fulminates ever more aggressively about the pesky press.

Numerous scenes and sequences are staged in the manner of familiar Spielberg signatures. The most prominent examples involve the roaring lemonade stand trade enjoyed, at one point, by Ben and Tony’s savvy young daughter (Austyn Johnson); and the composition of the crowd assembled when Graham descends the steps leading from the U.S. Supreme Court, which grants an emergency hearing for The Times injunction.

John Williams’ symphonic score is thoughtful, understated and — seemingly — sparse ... but that’s deceptive. His themes develops as subtly and richly as Streep’s performance.

The Post probably won’t have the staying power of All the President’s Men, lacking high-profile star reporters such as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. But the two films are perfect bookends, particularly since the former concludes — after Dobell’s Nixon furiously demands that The Post be barred forever from all White House news and events — with Watergate Complex security guard Frank Wills (JaQwan J. Kelly), and his surprise discovery of five late-night intruders within Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Nixon’s parting threat here is richly ironic ... and yet another reminder that über-wealthy Capitol Hill foxes must never, ever be allowed to guard and control the fragile hen house of democracy.

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