Sunday, 21 January 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: THE POST


58. “The way they lied, those days have to be over.”



21/01/2018





We are all well versed in the themes of 2017, and now 2018, because we must be: free speech, women’s rights, trust in the media, and misuse of power. In 1971, the same was true, and the lesson to take away from Steven Speilberg’s latest feature is, to quote the American Declaration of Independence, our “certain unalienable rights” must be defended from all threats, especially those from the government.

“The Post” distils this down to the story of two people: Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, publisher of the “Washington Post” newspaper since the suicide of her husband, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the paper’s editor. The uncovering of 4,000 pages of what is now named the “Pentagon Papers,” a top-secret history of American political and military in Vietnam, proves the government lied about the effectiveness of the ongoing war, calculating that seventy percent of its efforts were to avoid defeat. Bradlee wants to run it, seeing a chance to establish the “Post” nationally, but Graham is a close personal friend of the Secretary of Defence, who commissioned the report, and her social standing is seen to be colliding with her duty as the publisher of the “Post,” just as Bradlee’s could have been when he was friends with John F Kennedy. Graham is also wary of any potential catastrophe that could strike the plan to float the newspaper on the stock market, and her advisors are already shown to have doubts in her ability, as a woman, to run the paper.


The last shot of “The Post” depicts the burglary at the Watergate hotel, so everything does turn out fine: Graham, having learned to assert that the “Post” is hers, and not her husband’s paper, approved the publishing of the “Pentagon Papers,” resulting in a fight that reaches the Supreme Court. Dinner parties give way to the newsroom, and respect from Bradlee, who sees how much Graham is risking if it all goes wrong. It works out as a kind of feel-good story at the end, but one that makes you want to watch “All the President’s Men,” where the story continues.

The roles of Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee were could have been written for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, channelling their inner Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart respectively, building a platonic relationship based in paper and ink. Bob Odenkirk is also brilliant as Ben Bagdikian, the “Post” journalist who tracks down the papers, and who is prepared to be imprisoned for his story.

Like “All the Money in the World,” “The Post” is proficient in its 1970s detail – smoking, boardrooms, typewriters, cars – and in fashioning its real-life details into a feature film story. The Pentagon Papers were initially reported by “The New York Times,” and their subject to an injunction, by the government, against future publication, drew “The Post” into their story. As a result, the role of the “Times” is highlighted less than it probably should have been, along with how the original whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, was tried for theft and conspiracy, although these were dismissed, when the government admitted to losing wiretapping records.


Rarely can you point to a film’s production schedule to prove how timely a film is going to be: Steven Spielberg was announced as director of “The Post,” after another of his projects was placed on hold, in February 2017, three months after producer Amy Pascal bought the script from first-time writer Liz Hannah, who quit her regular job to become a scriptwriter after reading Katharine Graham’s memoir “Personal History” – rewrites would be made with Josh Singler, writer of “Spotlight,” the other recent, timely newspaper film. Spielberg noted the story’s themes, and the current political climate, deciding the film needed to be seen as soon as possible: shooting began by the end of May 2017, and the final cut was approved on 6th November, with final sound mixing and music completed one week later. Meanwhile, Spielberg’s next feature, “Ready Player One,” has been in post-production the entire time.

As ever, Spielberg’s direction is most clear in the story, and there are few flourishes to the visuals in order concentrate attention on the story, but one choice in the sound design stayed with me after leaving the cinema, as the gunshots in Vietnam turned to helicopter rotors, and then to the tapping of a typewriter – that might have beaten the ceiling fan in “Apocalypse Now” for me.

One review, already quoted in advertisements for “The Post,” says it is one of the best films ever made but, then again, that did come from a newspaper, “The Observer.” Time will tell, but the film reminds us that truth and democracy faced hardship before, and won out then too.
Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee (1972)

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