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The Post

(2017) ** 1/2 Pg-13
115 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Matthew Rhys, Bruce Greenwood.

/content/films/5093/1.jpgBefore Wikileaks, before Fake News, before Mainstream Media became a proper noun, newspapers doggedly pursued the truth. As the U.S. President prepares to roll out his “Fake News Awards” to belittle the free press, a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks enjoys residency in the nation’s theaters (not to mention a prime table at awards shows). Having only gone before the cameras in May of this year, The Post vigorously exploits its current-events resonance, its rushed-to-the-screen raison d’être.

With Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks taking their licks at the man in the Oval Office, it’s a fair bet that few will care that The Post comes up short. Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the famed executive editor of The Washington Post (immortalized by Jason Robards in the 1976 classic All the President’s Men). In 1971, the Nixon White House didn’t care for the Post’s coverage, prompting a capricious denial of access to Tricia Nixon’s wedding. “The Nixon White House is nothing if not vindictive,” muses Streep’s Katherine Graham, the paper’s publisher. The New York Times begins publishing the bombshell Pentagon Papers stolen and leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to reveal the truth about America’s Vietnam War policy. Bradlee smells opportunity when an injunction by the Nixon Administration shuts down the Times’s reporting.

At the same time, Graham finds herself largely occupied with the cause of making the Post a public company. Striding into boardrooms overflowing with men, Graham appears mousy and deferential to her ally and chairman of the board Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts). Whether this depiction is true or not—and the real-life Graham indeed confessed to a lack of self-confidence fostered by the sexism surrounding her—the screenwriters clearly see it as a dramatic necessity to tee up an eventual heroic climax of brave conviction on Graham’s part. Perhaps the socialite Graham was more comfortable in a ballroom than a boardroom, but her portrayal as a strong woman waiting to emerge from a dithering doyenne feels reductive.

Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s less than fully formed script struggles to find the drama in the Post slipstreaming the Times, wearing down shoe leather acquiring and delving into the Papers (mostly the job of Bob Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian), and standing side-by-side with the Times in a Supreme Court showdown with the U.S. Attorney General. While certain scenes generate fleeting sparks (tense talks between Graham and personal friend Robert McNamara, well played by Bruce Greenwood), the filmmakers’ solution tends to be the characters speechifying, posing, and repeatedly declaiming the stakes (“We could all go to prison”).

Spielberg lays it on thick with “hero shots” of Hanks and Streep as John Williams provides musical undercarriage, but it’s hard not to get bogged down in Janusz Kaminski’s self-consciously grainy, grey photography and the literally wiggy period “detail” (this is the kind of movie that short-hands an unneccessary Vietnam sequence with a Creedence Clearwater Revival cue). The heroic journalism depicted in the Post could hardly be more timely, it’s true, but Spielberg’s take rarely achieves dramatic traction.

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