Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Post (Steven Spielberg)

Dies in darkness

Steven Spielberg's latest film may be--thanks to the timing and historical context in which it appears--the most important of his career.

If only the film were better. Spielberg seems to struggle nowadays even in genres he's familiar with (The BFG, War Horse). Where he once weaved enchantment with the greatest of ease now he seems to strain mightily, calling forth all the lighting magic, digital effects, and John Williams music at his command. 

The movie begins with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) hearing the truth about the Vietnam War from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) right before the Secretary turns around to lie about said war to the general public; the movie ends with a security guard reporting a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Understand the thought behind this kind of handholding--Spielberg assumes much of America has forgotten the circumstances that drove Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers, and the ultimate consequence of his indiscretion--but Spielberg's connect-the-dots style of chronicling leaves one feeling patronized: no sir we are not kids; no sir this is not E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark. We'd like to be addressed as reasonably intelligent adults, with some grasp of recent history. 

 We'd also like a little less of that important-movie feel: the bluish lighting inside famous buildings (the Supreme Court, the Capitol), the slavish recreation of the Post newsroom--infinitely less persuasive than Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film set partly because the Watergate scandal had ended only two years before partly because Pakula didn't think to have John Williams slather momentous music over everything like so much pancake syrup.

Yes All the President's Men had music composed by David Shire, who at first questioned the need for any--but Pakula insisted and Shire submitted an understated score. You have to listen for it but it's there, and when played (Spielberg's sense of when to apply and not apply music is easily his greatest weakness) it's powerful. 

Pretty much sums up the difference between the two films: President's Men tends towards persuasive understatement where The Post tends towards bugle-blat. It's not bad bugling--Spielberg rarely turns out a poorly shot and edited film (though Hook may be a notable exception)--but you may want to slap palms to ears to protect them.

Unfortunately President's Men was made some forty plus years ago and audiences nowadays hardly bother to see old films; unfortunately audiences nowadays can't possibly remember when the press ever functioned as an important check against the powers that be, and we need that reminder in this age of 'fake news' (the press needs reminding too but that's a whole other issue for a whole other movie). Spielberg for all his obviousness and sentimentality may be right after all with his choice of material, even method of attack--this is a new generation that needs to see what dedication to truth looks like, or at least a reasonable facsimile of the same; they probably even need the few pages of Cliff Notes appended to either end of the picture.

If anyone incarnates Spielberg's ideas about cinematic comfort food it's Tom Hanks--he's not only played lead in several of the director's recent features he epitomizes the kind of hero Spielberg seems to admire: the decent hardworking professional, good at his job and good in his intentions (in this movie Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee). He's charming he's popular and boy do I want to walk past the ticket counter into the nearest bar every time I see his name on a movie poster: there's no danger to his performances anymore (I keep thinking of the self-regarding asshole he once essayed in Punchline) no real personal investment. Or (here's a worse thought) there is personal investment and it happens to be 100% goodness and light--in effect what you see is what you get and what you get is soporifically deadly. 

The real surprise--and real reason to see the movie, besides reminding yourself of priorities in life--is Meryl Streep's Katharine Graham. Listened to Graham in a few interviews and Streep captures that cultured pearl-dropping delivery of hers--but that's not important; what's important is that Streep manages to create a character that grows from rich matron in over her head to steely owner of a news outlet which, with this breaking story, is finally a national as opposed to local paper (Okay The New York Times broke the story first and played a larger role--but we're talking character arc not historical record). Not the biggest fan in the world of Streep--think she's livelier and more effective in comedies--but here as a character actor I submit she's the real thing. 

First published in Businessworld 2.23.18


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