Steven Spielberg’s latest bad movie attempts to recapture the emotional drama surrounding the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. One might imagine that the film would highlight the challenges and consequences faced by Daniel Ellsberg in ferrying the documents out of the realm of government classified restrictions, or the efforts of the New York Times in bringing these astonishing documents to the public. Instead, the crux of the film is curiously focused on the Washington Post, which was late to reporting the story but wound up picking up the publication of the Pentagon Papers’ contents after the Nixon White House threw temporary legal obstacles in the Times’ path.
The heroes in the story are Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee. In Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay, however, Graham is presented as a somewhat silly society matron and Bradlee is a self-important, fast-talking vulgarian, and together they accidentally wind up with the story of the year in their laps – it’s as if Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx were starring in “The Front Page.” They are surrounded by a small army of personality-free reporters who spend a lot of time marching back and forth across a newsroom and making pensive faces while speaking on the telephone, as well as cranky Post board members – old-school WASPs with too-expensive suits – who are openly misogynistic to Graham and contemptuous of Bradlee. On a few occasions, President Nixon shows up as a bit player standing by a window with his back to the camera while the soundtrack is flooded with ominous threats by the paranoid Commander in Chief.
The central flaw to “The Post” is trying (and failing) to make this a thriller when it is actually an intellectual drama. Spielberg uses Janusz Kamiński’s moody cinematography and John Williams’ heavy-handed music score to play up elements of intrigue and action, but the tale is overstuffed with telephoned threats of lawsuits and whispered conversations on whether bankers will withdraw their support from the Post’s initial price offering. This is not exactly something to get your adrenaline into overdrive.
It also doesn’t help that Spielberg brought in Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star in this film and turned them loose with their worst tricks. Streep, as usual, is all hand gestures and eye flutters, speaking softly while carrying a big shtick. When her character has a belated transformation from wishy-washy aristocrat into aggressive feminist icon who gains the mute admiration from a squadron of female extras dressed like “Laugh-In” dancers, the absurdity of the moment turns “The Post” into an unintentional comedy. Hanks tries to channel Bradlee through a bad wig and gravelly voice, but he frequently forgets to stay in vocal characterization and winds up sounding like someone fighting a bad cold. His performance is calibrated for larger-than-life, complete with macho body language and laughing sneers, and he is given plenty of opportunities to sail into sloganeering speeches about the importance of a free press and democracy, but the poverty of the material only magnifies the strident tone of his on-screen antics. At no point is the viewer able to absorb these characters as real people, nor can one forget they are watching two lazy actors cut the ham too thickly.
“The Post” never bothers to give any post-script on the political fallout created by the Pentagon Papers’ publication or the Nixon administration’s persecution of Ellsberg once he was identified as the source of the leak, which makes its value as a history lesson worthless. A much more insightful production – not to mention a better-made work – is the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” which honors the central figure of the controversy with intelligence and dignity. In comparison, “The Post” is the cinematic equivalence of fake news.