It’s instructive – and, admittedly, obvious – to compare Steven Spielberg’s The Post to 2015’s Best Picture winning film Spotlight. The two films have a lot in common. They’re each newspaper movies, which signals something in an age of journalist layoffs and the increasing dominance of social media over traditional media. They each use their newspaper setting to tell a story of a specific time – in Spotlight’s case, an epidemic of Catholic paedophilia; in The Post’s case, the American government’s cover-up of the particulars of the Vietnam War as chronicled in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ – with unmistakable resonance today.
Stylistically, however, the films couldn’t be more different. Spotlight is decidedly unostentatious. Unsexy, even. Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s direction kept the focus on the story rather than the style. Spielberg, on the other hand, isn’t one for subtlety. Maybe The Post isn’t ostentatious – or sexy – but it sure is a big, bold, brassy film, populated with extravagant camera angles and dramatic lighting and goggle-eyed wide lenses and, often, a camera that strives and bounces through scenes like a giddy teenager shooting a Law & Order episode.
Those stylistic difference mean that, storytelling-wise, The Post is the inverse of Spotlight. McCarthy’s procedural was almost perfect, but it faltered when it tipped over into dramatics; a histrionic scene of Mark Ruffalo aiming for an Oscar tape felt out of character and unconvincing. The Post’s the opposite; it’s the quieter moments – as when Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) delivers a quiet, tearful monologue to her daughter (Alison Brie) – that don’t quite hit the spot. Having been conditioned by a camera always dollying and panning and crash-zooming to associate movement with excitement, I found my mind wandering during this scene.
Which is strange, because characters – not the Pentagon Papers nor even The Post itself – are at the centre of Spielberg’s film. That’s clear from lazy opening scenes set ‘in the shit’ and scored to Creedence Clearwater Revival (an unconscionable cliché at this point). Sure, Spielberg – and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – are interested in the politics of newspapers. When the New York Times face an injunction over publishing excerpts from the (classified) Pentagon Papers, the decision of whether or not The Post should publish in their stead offers up a plethora of questions around free speech and the Fourth Estate. To the film’s credit, it considers all sides of the argument.
But this is primarily a film about the fragility and strength of a woman in a traditionally male role in a male-dominated industry, and about a newspaper man (Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee) fighting for truth against the strictures of business and politics. It’s about how those people are weak and strong, flawed and fierce. But because all of these ideas are inextricably tied up in the one big question that dominates the film – “Do we publish?” – the characters are lessened once they step outside that context.
What limits The Post to goodness rather than greatness, for me, is that that question feels like a foregone conclusion whether or not you’re familiar with the history. Even as Spielberg examines the question from every angle, you can’t help but sense he’s more interested in the texture: the black machinery of the printing press, the burnished-gold antique-store aesthetic of a time where piles of paper meant something. It’s a wonderful looking film – I’m a little over the sepia-toned cinematography invariably used for any period piece nowadays, but The Post makes it work – but one ultimately more interested in images than ideas.
The film’s images are undeniably potent, but in that big, obvious way that steamrolls the complexity of the issues. Not one, not two, but three scenes of Kay wading into a room populated only by old white men like a prisoner into the lion’s den underline the intended feminist subtext; a climactic scene of Kay striding down courthouse steps framed by throngs of adoring young women adds bold, italics and capitals to the mix. This is clever filmmaking, but it’s not particularly smart; as much as I enjoyed watching a throng of over-qualified character actors wrapping their gums around this material, I couldn’t help but wish for a subtler approach to give me something to think about when I walked out of the theatre. Spotlight posed a lot of questions; The Post is more interested in delivering answers.