Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Post - surefooted newspaper drama with obvious modern parallels

It's hard to beat a film about the newspaper industry and Steven Spielberg's new film The Post does not disappoint with its retelling of a few turbulent but formative weeks in the life of The Washington Post in the early 1970s, pre-Watergate.

A government-commissioned report running to thousands of pages is locked up, commissioned for future historians to look back with perspective on the US government's role in the war in Vietnam. When New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) gets hold of a copy, the Nixon White House takes legal action to silence the "treasonable" paper which reveals that the successive presidents have been lying to the public about progress and the unlikelihood of success.

Meanwhile, Washington Post executives are working through their last minute jitters about floating on the Stock Exchange while the editor pushes his staff to get access to a copy of the report and make their own headlines. What ensues is a battle that clarifies the previously blurred lines between journalists and politicians (and particularly Presidents) in Washington, and tests the resolve of The Washington Post's publisher to fulfil her mission to hold those in power to account.
"We can't have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don't like what we print about them in our newspaper"

These are themes that other recent films have explored, particularly Darkest Hour in which the new Prime Minister is seen to mislead the country in a radio broadcast that vastly overplays the prognosis for Allied forces in France. And they are themes that all too frequently play out in contemporary news bulletins documenting the 45's US President's recurring attacks on the media. But Trump isn't the only leader who would seek to shape the news.

Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the family heiress of The Washington Post. Taking over after her husband's death, she is at first driven by a need to honour her predecessors and secure the paper's financial future before events force her to consider the more fundamental reasons for having a free press.

Frequently the only woman in a room full of male directors and bankers, Streep subjects herself to the still prevalent practice of speaking, not being heard - or being talked over - before a man repeats what she says and everyone hears and agrees with the statement. (Though the wedding line of women waiting for her outside the Supreme Court lacks subtlety and lays the hero worship on a little too thick.)

Streep takes from an agitated fiddler to someone who decides to stand their ground and not be bullied by the men who surround her.

Tom Hanks is restrained in his portrayal of The Washington Post's editor Ben Bradlee in a performance that favours brain power over banging desks. His acknowledgement of complicity in burying stories and being a friend to politicians feels like a genuine epiphany and moment of maturity.

Time spent downstairs in the print hall watching blocks of type being composited and paper flowing through the newspaper presses add a lot to the historical feel of the film that is never more than a few feet away from a cloud of cigarette smoke.

The approach of following the drama at the burgeoning Washington Post rather than the already well-established New York Times which first broke the story is a little distracting at the start of the movie. Yet overall, the screenplay is confidently handled by director Steven Spielberg. The mixing together of storylines is deft. Little moments of symmetry, like the White House withholding accreditation for Post reporters, provide bookends for the audience, though the earthquake scene is perhaps more like something out of ET rather than a serious newspaper movie.
"The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

The parallels with 2018 are immense. The on-screen battle between politicians and the fourth estate may remind local audiences of politicians boycotting interviews with certain mainstream news outlets and harassed questioning the veracity and reporting of stories which are embarrassing. After nearly two hours, I also learnt that if you're ever near the NY Times office, be careful crossing the road: nearly everyone in this film narrowly escapes being run over!

Maybe Spielberg will one day make a sequel that examines the period in 2013 when then Graham family relinquished all control and the paper was bought by deep-pocketed Jeff Bezos.

The Post is being screened in Queen's Film Theatre, Movie House and many other local cinemas.

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