There are moments when the various branches of the media come together in a peculiar cinematic ritual. The film industry, with its studio lots and serious actors, turns its gaze to the world of hard news and investigative reporters to make a picture enshrining the First Amendment.
Such films — which include “Frost/Nixon” and “Spotlight” — find themselves caught in a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, they have the unique opportunity to explore the political complexities of the press’s freedoms from the lens of one branch of the media viewing the other. On the other hand, they have the obligation to uphold the image of the perfect, ideological liberty that the First Amendment represents.
This is where director Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post” (referring to the Washington Post), takes its cinematic roots. While arguably one of the most well-executed entries of this genre, “The Post” struggles to find a balance between the story it is really telling — a mother acclimating to a position of power and fighting to preserve her family’s legacy — and its commitment to larger ideologies, such as history.
From a distance, the film is collected and confident. Meryl Streep gives a strong but stock performance as Kay Graham, the first female Fortune 500 CEO and the publisher of the titular newspaper. Likewise, Tom Hanks rises to the occasion as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor. The film is also timely; the sitting president, Richard Nixon, is portrayed as a bully and a threat to the freedom of the press.
But frustratingly, “The Post” has a second, more immediate allegiance to an aggrandized retelling of history. The film places the audience momentarily into the jungles of Vietnam, heavy with the sound of choppers and live ammunition. At various intervals in the film, the camera sets up shop outside the White House, where the silhouette of Richard Nixon stalks the screen. The audience is even brought inside the Watergate complex as Nixon’s henchmen are caught in the act.
This would all be tolerable if Hanks and Streep’s characters were, in some way, participants in these moments. But in reality, they are the publisher and editor who cover the events after they happen, who return and attempt to reassemble the pieces of what the audience has watched live.
Resultantly, a certain discordance rises between the characters and the viewer. Most likely these historical moments were staged in the name of dramatic irony, but they seem to suggest the troubling belief that the viewer cannot be called upon to know simple, important facts — that the Vietnam War was violent, for example, or that Richard Nixon was corrupt, or that the Watergate scandal took place.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
The film seems to reflect the troubling belief that unless it is shown the carnage of the Vietnam War, the audience will not be able to grasp the gravity of Streep’s portrayal of Graham and her courageous decision to publish politically damning files on the American side of the armed conflict —unless shown the literal shadow of Nixon, the audience will fail to understand he is the villain of the story.
Yet, the story that “The Post” is trying to tell is a remarkable one. The portrayal of Graham is excellent in the more general arena. Graham’s character is beautifully developed — at once a poised socialite, a strong publisher grappling with indecision and a mother potentially facing jail time. Graham is inarguably the heart of the story, but there is no room for her in the opening or the closing of the film.
As a film that prides itself on combating misogyny, “The Post” is remiss in its ultimate structure. While the battlegrounds in Vietnam and the Watergate break-in may be arresting historical bookends, they say very little about who Graham is, or what she fought for, or where she ended up.
“The Post” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.