Why I swoon for the long take, Spielberg and ‘The Post’

Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy

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Much has already been said about Steven Spielberg’s preference for shooting long takes, his signature oner. None have perhaps said it better than video essayists Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos of the now-defunct YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting.” You might remember a few of Spielberg’s best — that ferry ride in “Jaws,” shot in its entirety, or maybe Marion Ravenwood’s legendary drinking game in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Spielberg is about as famous for this stylistic choice as he is for a sweeping sentimentality, replacing serious ‘70s cinema with the modern blockbuster and dedicating his contemporary career to historical dramas — including “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” and, now, “The Post.” No matter the film, the Spielberg oner is threaded throughout his filmography in its entirety — with the long takes of “The Post” particularly of note.

While “The Post” itself is a bit dry, the film’s exquisite form serves as a reminder that Spielberg remains a director who fires on all cylinders. For instance, when the Pentagon Papers land on a reporter’s desk, the camera follows the reporter as he walks through the Washington Post’s newsroom, through an office and finally to editor Ben Bradlee’s (Tom Hanks) desk. Like many long takes in Spielberg’s filmography, its constantly shifting scenery and urgent dialogue render an otherwise mundane action — delivering a package — visually captivating.

Likewise, when Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) meet in a restaurant, the camera puts both subjects in frame, motionless for the entirety of their conversation. Most directors would employ a traditional shot-reverse-shot style, but shooting in one take allows us to see in plain view two legendary (and highly “overrated”) actors working off each other for the first time in film. Additionally, we see Graham, constantly undermined by her male employees, framed on the same level as Bradlee in a literal sense. Such shots are a credit to cinematographer Janusz Kamiński as much as Spielberg himself.

Nevertheless, the long takes of “The Post” aren’t even the most flashy or technically virtuosic in recent memory. They don’t dazzle quite as much as the one-take boxing match in “Creed,” or literally any shot from “Gravity.” Rather, the affect of Spielberg’s direction and Kamiński’s cinematography derives from a simple sense of purpose.

THE POST

Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy

To that point, executing a long take requires a painstaking degree of preparation and rehearsal, putting an even greater time constraint on the shooting schedule of “The Post,” which began principal photography in May 2017 and was released only a few months later in December.

In short, the sheer effort needed to shoot a long take, especially for “The Post,” signals a purposeful ambition: the film’s overarching dedication to verisimilitude. A heavy cloud of period-accurate cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Actual audio of then-President Richard Nixon is used, rather than an actor’s impersonation. We see brief glimpses into Graham’s family life, but nothing that treads too far into the realm of creative speculation. If we had, the film would have detracted from its aim to be an accurate account of a newspaper attempting to tell the truth, and nothing but.

In this sense, the film’s long takes are themselves extensions of this same verisimilitude. They are a filmic account of events unaltered by editing and performed in real time by actors. These shots remove any pretense of artifice, as if to suggest through form alone that the film aspires to the same degree of truthfulness as the Washington Post itself. In “The Post,” Spielberg uses long takes like an article would quotes, interspersing them throughout to communicate that which the editorializing of (filmic) language cannot.

Between Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” film buffs have long salivated over the long take. Sometimes, they just look cool, as Hitchcock admitted after releasing “Rope,” and as I noted in my review of “The Commuter.” But with “The Post,” regardless of any issues I may have with its storytelling, Spielberg’s purposefulness reminds me why I swoon for the long take in the first place.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].