‘The Post’: is Steven Spielberg playing it safe?
A mark of a truly great filmmaker is her ability to challenge both herself and the climate of work around her, to continuously explore new things and to incorporate them into her craft to yield a better result (or even a bad one). And while many filmmakers did that successfully this year — think Jordan Peele (Get Out), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), and Dee Rees (Mudbound) — other directors sang songs to the tunes of their old hits. Case in point: Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
The famed director’s repertoire is undoubtedly one of the best in history, with generation-defining classics such as Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler’s List to his name. And while his cinema continues to be praised into 2018, a trend in his last few movies raises some flags that are hard to ignore in The Post.
Set in the late 60s during the Nixon administration, the Best Picture nominee tells the notorious story of how Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the heiress of The Washington Post, and her team uncovered a troubling secret about the Vietnam War spanning four administrations of U.S. presidents. Fighting personal convictions and the pressure of the government, Graham and her chief editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) must make the difficult decision that will undoubtedly change history.
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When you have names like Streep and Hanks, two of Hollywood’s most iconic and celebrated actors, attached to a project, the product is promised to be a sweeping showcase of performance. And The Post does not disappoint in that regard. The roles seem to be written for the two who unsurprisingly deliver great performances. In fact, the entire ensemble, which includes Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford, and Bruce Greenwood, manages to not be cast in the two veterans’ shadow — a feat in and of itself.
That being said, there’s more to story the film is based on than meets the eye. On the surface, it’s a rebellion against the state and a fight for freedom of press and for freedom of speech, but underneath that is a story of a woman running a major publication in the 60s and 70s, holding the power to set a precedent that would forever change journalism — and that’s a side to the Vietnam leak that many (including myself) did not know.
Watching how everything came into place and how the whole ordeal transpired is fascinating in its own rite, but a story most of us knew in some way or another. And while history is the side Spielberg’s films seem to stand on, The Post misses, in this age and time, a major scoop in this story: the opportunity to create a powerful, feminist story arc for Graham. This is alluded to in little moments in the film, which implies the story was indeed there, but never fully addressed or explored. Streep’s Graham turns bold quite abruptly, with no logical sequence of character development.
In 2016, Spotlight explored both The Boston Globe’s story about abuse in the church and the toll that revelation carried on the people who covered the story and the country as a whole. In a time when media agencies around the world are attacked for their choices, and freedom of speech is jeopardised more than ever, films like The Post become essential viewing, but it is also the role of journalism (a word I would venture to use to categorise this film) to expose all the different sides of the story there are. While a polished work of a cinema veteran (what else are you expecting with such a top-tier cast and crew?), the film remains somewhat isolated in its inability to transcend its own story.
Spielberg has given us cinematic gems, and there’s no denying the impact of his legacy of film and filmmakers today. But a huge part of why his films were so groundbreaking was because of how many risks he took as a filmmaker. And his filmography of late has lacked that. From The Post to Bridge of Spies and even to Lincoln (though to a lesser extent), Spielberg seems to recycle the same recipe: big-budget high production, historical drama, widely-recognised and loved veterans of the screen, the best possible cast and crew, and so on. And the result is always an impeccably made work, one that checks all the boxes but is not the transformative experience his old films used to be.
The Post is a thrilling watch from start to end, boasting a strong ensemble performance, great craftsmanship, and a well-written landmark moment in American journalism. But in viewing it against the filmography of its helmer (and what we all know he’s capable of) as well as the lack of proper character development, it becomes one of the director’s lesser efforts, but a very solid one nonetheless.
It remains for time to tell the trajectory of Spielberg’s cinema. While I would personally love to see him make a small independent, character-driven film, his next feature, Ready Player One, will be released in March and already seems to be a break from his recent work, and I, for one, will be holding on to that inkling of hope.