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From Free Press to Fancy Dress - Spielberg's 'The Post'

From Free Press to Fancy Dress - Spielberg's The Post

Steven Spielberg's The Post is an opportune newsroom drama in which a corrupt Republican president wages war against the "liberal media," as The Washington Post's plucky proprietor risks economic and legal ruin to bring the Pentagon Papers to public light. Richard Nixon himself never puts in an appearance, which makes it easy to imagine Trump in his place, inserting his own vapid rhetoric against “fake news” into screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s dramatization of the conflict. Although few reviews have failed to refer to its "timeliness," the film was already deep in development before the threat of a Trump presidency was considered credible. Its true protagonist is publisher Katharine 'Kay' Graham, a stringently diplomatic businesswoman who felt reluctantly compelled to take an overtly political stance in the greater interests of democracy and freedom of the press.

Great newspaper editors are relatively easy to identify. In the UK, crusading figures such as Hugh Cudlipp at the Daily Mirror in the 1960s, Harold Evans at the Times in the 1970s, and Peter Preston and Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian during the 1980s and beyond immediately spring to mind. Less well-known are the owners of such newspapers, who often only become famous when their shameful self-promotion or unethical behaviour goes beyond the pale (think Lords Beaverbrook and Maxwell in Fleet Street, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer across the pond). The immense contribution of Graham, known mainly as a society hostess until her husband Philip committed suicide and she became sole proprietor of the Post in 1963, has now been duly acknowledged by Hollywood. Not only was she the only female publisher in a world dominated by testosterone-fueled aggression, but she also managed to leave an indelible legacy on the profession.

Such an endowment was not achieved without some personal sacrifices. The Grahams were important members of the Washington social scene, befriending not only Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, John, Bobby, and Jackie Kennedy, but also Republicans such as the Rockefeller family, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Ron and Nancy Reagan, and Warren Buffett, who became something of an eminence grise at the Washington Post after his Berkshire Hathaway investment fund became a major shareholder in the company. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Personal History, Graham repeatedly mentions how closely her husband cultivated politicians (he was instrumental in getting Johnson the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1960), and how such intimacy later became unacceptable in journalism. Tragically, Philip Graham was afflicted by both alcoholism and mental illness throughout his marriage. He experienced violent mood swings and often belittled his wife in public. After she discovered his affair with Robin Webb, an Australian stringer for Newsweek, on Christmas Eve 1962, Philip declared he would file for divorce and made motions to divide up the couple's assets. He had a nervous breakdown at a newspaper conference in Phoenix, after which he was sedated and flown back to Washington, where he ended up in a psychiatric facility. He blew his brains out with a 28-gauge shotgun during a weekend release at the couple's Glen Welby home.

The term 'feisty' is entirely insufficient to describe his widow. Nor does the word 'difficult' do justice to her struggle for recognition and independence in a male-dominated industry notorious for its cut-throat tactics and lack of ethical standards when it comes to gaining a competitive edge. The constant struggle for increased circulation (i.e. greater advertising revenue) and the continual search for scoops created vicious in-fighting well before the advent of celebrity culture, phone hacking scandals, and the kind of covert invasions of privacy adopted by the worst of the paparazzi, whose hounding of Princess Diana (to name only the most obvious victim) literally drove her to death. As the only woman to be in such a high position at a publishing company, this staunch advocate and fierce defendant of press freedom had no female role models and encountered strong resistance to her efforts to be taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees. In her memoir, she detailed her lack of confidence and distrust in her own knowledge and experience. The convergence of the women's movement with Graham's control of the Post led her to promote gender equality within her company.

Graham's sense of personal dignity and integrity harks back to an earlier and more decorous era when newspaper owners considered themselves to be first and foremost purveyors of the truth - albeit from sometimes politically slanted and often prejudiced perspectives. She presided over the Washington Post at a crucial time in US political history and personally played a seminal role in unveiling the Watergate scandal which ultimately led to Nixon's resignation. Graham and editor Ben Bradlee first engendered his wrath when they published the Pentagon Papers, but when investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought the Watergate story to the paper, they ran a series of stories about the break-in at a time when most other news organisations lacked the intestinal fortitude.

Graham herself was the subject of one of the best-known threats in American journalistic history in connection with Watergate, when Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell warned Bernstein about a forthcoming article - "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published." The paper retained their nerve and published the quote (although Bradlee cut the words "her tit"), with Graham laconically observing that it was "especially strange of him to call me Katie, which no one has ever called me." The Post is dedicated to the memory of writer/director Nora Ephron, who was once married to Bernstein, and in a nod to historical authenticity Ellsberg's original documents were used as props in the movie, including the pages we see scattered over the floor of Bradlee's home.

Notwithstanding its political partisanship and rousing feminist message, The Post is by no means a risky or subversive film. It is a traditional potboiler that begins in the jungle, then shifts to Washington - and defies audiences to spot the difference. Nothing is allowed to sooth the tension under General Spielberg's autocratic command. Courtrooms, boardrooms, nicely-appointed drawing rooms, and newsrooms furnished with little more than telephones and smoke are all cocked and combat-ready, with every tension-filled deadline looming ahead like a deadly ambush. The movie opens as a platoon of US Marines prepare to penetrate the minatory Vietnamese rain forest. “Who’s the longhair?” one grunt asks another. The embedded schmuck with the frizz is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, from The Americans), employed by the Rand Corporation for research purposes. On the plane back Stateside, he is asked by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), “Are things better or worse?” Ellsberg replies, "Much the same" and an exasperated McNamara can only agree. But that is not what he tells the assembled press corps back on the tarmac: “In every respect, we’re making progress,” he insists, lying through his teeth. Greenwood has perfected McNamara's dissembling smile - long, smooth, and curved like a scythe.

Given the current US President's specious grasp of the truth, it is entirely fitting that Spielberg's latest opus pivots succinctly around this rift between reality and the "alternative facts" that are deemed presentable to the general public. It was Ellsberg’s conscientious objection to this discrepancy that led him to steal (or liberate, depending on your perspective) the stash of incriminating documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers. Just in case younger viewers might miss the point, the words 'Top Secret - Sensitive' are printed in large red letterhead on the files he removes. We also get a potted history of US involvement in Southeast Asia, from Truman to Johnson. Spielberg is a sworn foe of narrative confusion and few directors construct clear narrative arcs with greater agility. For a more profound examination of what was euphemistically termed a 'Theatre of Operations,' however, viewers should can do no better than Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's recent documentary The Vietnam War.

The main plot problem in any heist movie is what to do with the loot, and Ellsberg initially delivered it to Neil Sheehan - then a correspondent for the New York Times and later author of the indispensable book A Bright Shining Lie. This was understandable, given the reach and the resources of the paper, but it enrages Bradlee, who sniffs a scoop, fishes forty bucks from his wallet, and tells an intern to catch a train to the Big Apple with instructions to snoop around and work out where the stench is coming from. Sure enough, the Times breaks the news, while the Post is left to lead with a feature on Tricia Nixon's wedding.

Spielberg's previous 'adult' movies have all been characterized by superb production values combined with top-line acting talent - and The Post is no exception. Although they have both worked separately with Ephron in the past, it marks the first on-screen star teaming of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who worked together on two previous pictures, but have never shared top-billing as actors before (Streep did voice work for The Ant Bully and starred in Mamma Mia!, both of which involved Hanks in an executive producer capacity). After Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Bridge of Spies, The Post is the fifth major collaboration between Hanks and Spielberg, but the first for Spielberg and Streep (who previously provided the voice for The Blue Fairy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence).

Streep traditionally gravitates less toward iconoclastic auteur statements than actor-oriented dramas and her first collaboration with Spielberg reflects their tasteful, old-school sense of moderation. Not having worked with Spielberg before, Streep was startled to learn he never rehearses with his actors. Hanks was well aware of this idiosyncrasy, but in playful anticipation of a 'diva' moment decided not to tell Streep. Despite her initial shock, however, they all got along famously during the shoot. In fact, Spielberg was reportedly so impressed with Streep's process he found it hard not to gush compliments over her after every take. The large ensemble supporting cast includes some equally impressive performances, especially by Bob Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons (both of whom previously starred in Breaking Bad) as Bradlee's trusted sidekicks. Lesser roles are assigned to the always reliable Carrie Coon and Michael Stuhlbarg (who starred together in the third season of Fargo, which also featured Odenkirk and Plemons in earlier seasons).

Hanks, channeling his inner Jimmie Stewart, does better than might be expected with Bradlee, given the twin obstacles he had to surmount. The first was Bradlee himself, the incandescent star of a golden-age motion picture in his own mind. It no doubt helped that Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn were Spielberg's Long Island neighbours for many years and that Hanks also knew Bradlee personally. The second hurdle is Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bradlee in All the President's Men, and taught a generation how to park their feet on a desk with conviction. There was a time when only cowboys could do that, with a clink of spurs, but Robards was playing a Beltway Brahmin in a striped shirt. He also patented a kind of growling drawl that Hanks is much too smart to try and mimic. His version of Bradlee substitutes gruff impatience for Robard's laid-back languor, his trademark pose a doughty crossing of the arms accompanied by the smallest hint of a snarl. One unfortunate journalist who has the temerity to request two whole days to put a piece together is briskly reminded that he is a reporter, not a novelist. Somebody else describes Bradlee as a pirate, motivating the gleeful moment when he ducks sideways and says to his assistant, “My God, the fun!”

Such obvious relish for the fray is hardly reciprocated by Graham, whose default condition is a few notches higher than a tizzy. We first see her waking up with a start buried under a bed strewn with reading material. Entering a restaurant, she knocks over a chair, and she appears prone to taking puffy little breaths, like a reluctant swimmer steeling herself at the ocean’s edge. Not that you can blame her, for the waters are infested with predatory men, leaving her isolated in a hostile world of journalistic machismo. The story breaks just as her newspaper is about to go public on the stock market. As the door slowly swings open to the meeting in which the share price will be agreed, it reveals a thick male shiver of dark-suited sharks awaiting her. They politely peel apart to make way for her, but her presence is clearly about as welcome as it would be at the Vatican.

Needless to say, Streep bides her time. No actress is better at pacing a performance and everything in The Post gradually narrows down to a single point - a closeup of Graham on the phone, under multiple pressures. In a show of undemocratic muscle not seen since the previous century, Nixon has brought an injunction against the Times, trying to compel it to halt publication. Bagdikian has met with Ellsberg and collared a hoard of classified material around which his colleagues cluster while Bradlee, sensing his chance, grabs it with his customary flourish. After a storm of editing, the pages are good to go, at which point Streep goes into a superbly controlled cadenza of ums, ers, and agonizing ahs, before her expression suddenly clears. “Let’s publish,” she says. But there's a last-minute hitch - by feeding from the same source, the Post risks contempt of court and its lawyers strongly advise against going to print. Board members are no less fretful. “We can’t let her do this,” one of them says. Midnight strikes. The decider decides, the suits are trounced, and the presses roll.

The scene is made all the more dramatic because of Graham's wardrobe. She has (as usual) been hosting a party, clad in a golden semi-caftan number, as though about to conclude the soirée with an Incan sacrifice. The presiding genius here is Ann Roth, Spielberg's trusted costume designer to whom he reportedly referred as “my co-director” on the set. Another familiar name is that of Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg’s cinematographer since Schindler's List, who opts for such wide lenses that his compositions seem to stretch and bulge. As the camera scurries furtively along one corridor after another, we could be watching The Shining. This is Spielberg's first film since War of the Worlds to be filmed in 1.85:1, as well as his first to employ that aspect ratio through the Super 35mm format. Such kinetic crowding of the frame is presumably designed to convey the frantic mood of the looming deadline - in complete contrast to the work of Gordon Willis, who shot All the President’s Men as though holding his breath, waiting and watching to see what would eventually emerge from all the smoke and shadows, in a manner more reminiscent of Creature from The Black Lagoon. The sequence depicting the Watergate break-in occurred at the opening of that movie and is neatly mirrored in the closing frames of The Post. In the murky depths where political intrigue suppurates most purulently, one coverup leaks gleet into the entire sewer.

Streep has never attempted to disguise her liberal allegiances, but in the age of Trump, she has begun expressing them with greater volume and candour. Her 2017 Golden Globes speech became a fulcrum moment of resistance - “This instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it … gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose." Streep laid the groundwork for The Post’s freedom of the press agenda when she concluded by rallying support for the Committee to Protect Journalists - "We’re going to need [journalists] going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

Her rousing lines could have been ripped straight from Hannah's screenplay, which was picked up as a spec script on the Black List website by producer Amy Pascal (who ran Sony Entertainment for nine years, until she took the fall after the company was hacked in 2014). When Pascal first optioned the screenplay in 2016, she considered it a 'Hilary Clinton era' movie and brought in co-screenwriter Josh Singer to help underline the crucial importance of journalism in uncovering political scandals, following his sterling work on The Fifth Estate and Spotlight. By the time Spielberg signed on, he thought it would be a 'Trump era' movie. Now it has become a 'Weinstein era' movie, with Graham's personal triumph over male arrogance and female invisibility assuming an unexpected resonance far greater than the intrepid reporting that lies at its core.

In order to capture this briskly evolving zeitgeist, shooting was completed at warp speed and the post-production process similarly accelerated. The Post is only the second of Spielberg's films to have been cut by two editors, marking the first time the notoriously nasty Michael Kahn has agreed to share his credit with anyone (in this case, Sarah Broshar). The final product appeared in US cinemas just over six months after shooting began in May 2017 and may be seen as a 'rapid response' to the risible rise of the demented and deranged demagogue Streep had criticized so passionately the previous January. Appropriately enough, it is Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post who perhaps best summarized their collective achievement: "What Spielberg may have intended as a reminder of the principles of a free press standing firm in the face of a paranoid and hostile presidency has … become a portrait of a woman born into privilege, but still having to battle systemic sexism, the condescension of her male colleagues, and her own self-doubt to come into her own as a corporate leader and journalist."

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